From a manuscript titled Threnody Fury & Psalms, the three pieces available here are haunting distillations of sorrow that engage the ancient poetic form of the cento (conceived as early as the 4th century if not earlier), as well as other collage arrangements, to establish a penetrating and contemporary collective lyric-I through which grief is explored, particularly the anguish that arises from a mother’s death.
In this 21st century, given our violent and fast-paced uncertain world in which we recognize and share our frailty and endangerment as a species, we need a collective lyric-I, not just a singular one. Because, on one hand, the world seems smaller via social media platforms and the concept of the “global village”; on the other, despite social media we often feel more isolated than ever. White explores this alienation in “First Extraction,” which functions in a similar manner as a haiku to a haibun in that it serves as a companion to, and a compression of, her cento “Grief Rows: The Best of 2012.” The opening sentence urges us to “fly against estrangement” in any way we can. The “extraction” in the title speaks concurrently to compositional extractions (the pulling of words and phrases from her other poem), to the extrication of voice (“my mouth mouthed you”), to the desire for the removal of pain and eradication of despair as the speaker implores “Tell me how to search out the beauties that death vanishes like winter.”
The late translator Gregory Rabassa suggested that all communication is a type of translation, and White, through the art of collage, reanimates previously circulating works to create new, necessary communications. Not only are the poems in conversation with other texts, they dialogue with one another. For example, in her cento “Looking South,” we see the same thematic threads of bereavement and textuality that were embodied in “First Extraction,” when she urges “here, doctor, take these scissors . . . cut / the grief sickness, the garment of words.” Underscoring Emerson’s acknowledgement that “all minds quote,” White highlights the compositional aspects of the cento, without forsaking emotionality. In the previously mentioned cento “Grief Rows,” the language of estrangement reappears in her rendering of the heart as “a stranger, wreckage, an estrangement, / and innumerable birds fly against it.” This motif of separation follows the crushing acknowledgment of a mother’s death, her “bones undressing / a fraction of the self, corpus, a dark compendium, this / holding in sight what no rite can grow back.”
This intricate and complexly stitched trio of collage poems—from their unpredictable turns and startling imagery to the varied ways in which textuality itself is addressed—are admirably adept at conveying grief without ever leaning towards the manipulative or overly familiar. Though these pieces are furious threnodies, they are healing ones as well, ultimately serving as invocations against loss.