Catherine Graham’s fifth collection pays informal tribute to Dorothy Molloy, an Irish poet who died of liver cancer just days before her first book was published in 2004. Graham notes that most of her poems started out as glosas, a 14th century Spanish form, incorporating four lines from a Molloy poem before finding their own expression. While poems like “Peas and Barbie” read like a direct response, others have journeyed far beyond their source of inspiration to produce something very different.
The poems circle round a number of themes: darkness; loss and abandonment; rotten childhoods; the subterranean life – not just the crawling biomes of soil, but the life within the self with all its entangling roots. Graham’s intimacy with the natural world is one of her great strengths, snowflakes a “crystal imprint / of pedigree lace.” But it’s essentially the world of human relationships, sensual and otherwise, that she keeps coming back to: “All I have are hands with river etches that map his exotic locales.”
Graham’s poems show a dreamlike receptivity to the world, often with painful consequences, and frequently the narrator is at the mercy of others, whether it’s a neglectful parent, bad lover or bully. An elusive male figure crops up everywhere like one of Graham’s black weeds. In some poems he is a father figure, in others he is sexually motivated. He is desired yet inadequate, always destined to disappoint.
There’s more than a hint of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone: the narrator’s return to life underground, the earth sliding over her face; her seduction by and subjection to male power; her longing for a more desirable home. While there is room for hope and transformation, these poems essentially gravitate towards inner wounds, the scarred landscapes of quarries, and dark places where roots, bottom-feeders and burrowing animals thrive. Graham’s work can be edgy, but what sticks is a lingering sense of entrapment in closed spaces, in a cycle of longing and painful memories, “passive like a cut / that never heals, only closes / over coldly, a wound of ice and snow.”
Reading Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects raises two intriguing questions: First, how do you define yourself (and your worth) in relation to people who were never fully present; and second, how do you make peace with a world where you never get what you want?
Graham offers no easy answers, and what at first looks like defeatism and resignation in the face of pain gives way to a hard-won acceptance. Ultimately, the attempt to possess others is given up altogether, and the narrator – ever-ready to diffuse into her surroundings – finds solace:
I rise to the cold
to take my place among the fragile stars,
What better place to call home?
Anouk H. Henri holds a Master’s in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts and currently lives just outside Montreal.
RISE UP ON THE WINGS OF ARC!