Monday, December 10, 2012

Review of Katherine Larson's RADIAL SYMMETRY

Review by Karen George
Radial Symmetry
     by Katherine Larson

 Yale University Press (2011)

 ISBN: 978-0300169201

 96 pages

Katherine Larson's debut poetry collection, Radial Symmetry, winner of the 2010 Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, is riveting. The book's title suggests how the book will operate. The term "radial symmetry" refers to organisms made of similar parts that radiate out from a central axis, such as a starfish or sea anemone. In Larson's collection, the poems diverge from the central core of her unique perception as poet and biologist to a variety of physical locations such as Arizona, Central America, Ireland, Galapagos Islands, Leningrad, Africa, as well as into emotional territories of love, betrayal, grief, and the realms of art, dreams, and metamorphosis. Yet this collection of poems is anything but disjointed. 

One of the unifying principles is Larson's extraordinary attention to detail and her stunning imagery, whether she's referencing a work of art, or describing a landscape, a sunfish, or vivid dream. In "Djenne, Mali," she gives us sound imagery in "sewing machines nattering on," and a combination visual and feeling image in "Shops fill and empty like lungs." In "Masculine/Feminine," she describes clouds that "come to pin up my hair with their tiny torn tufts." This is such a rhythmic phrase with its repeated "t" sound and all but one word a single syllable. In "Love at Thirty-two Degrees," she describes a dissected squid:

            ...there was no blood
            only textures of gills folded like satin,
            suction cups like planets in rows...

            ...Amazing, hearts.
            This branchial heart. After class,
            I stole one from the formaldehyde
            and watched it bloom in my bathroom sink
            between the cubes of ice.

The above lines give an inkling of the author's voice–one of amazement, sometimes rapturous, at the beauty of this world–another element that runs throughout these poems, setting up a sense of intimacy with the reader. As Louise Gluck describes in the foreword:  "The poet is a kind of dazed Miranda, so new to the world that its every ordinariness seems an emblem of wonder."

Later in "Love at Thirty-two Degrees," Larson describes an astronomer gazing at the night sky:
            ...that expands
            even as it falls apart

            like a paper boat dissolving in bilge...

            The snow outside

            is white and quiet
            as a woman's slip

            against cracked floorboards...

            ...his wife
            her hair and arms all
            in disarray

            like fish confused by waves.
Larson chooses her words carefully. In the above lines, simple words convey a palpable feeling of reverence and awe, and a heightened awareness of all the senses that appears again and again in Larson's work. In the poem, "A Lime Tree for San Cristobal," which is placed in the Galapagos, she says:

            ...The pure
            sting of citrus delivers perfume in a halo
            of blossoms.

The second line of the above quote, with its repeated short "i" sound, also exemplifies the musical quality of Larson's writing that makes this collection such an aural delight. Later in the same poem, she describes a shark the fishermen have killed:

   gills embroidered
            blood, the eyes–two mirrors snapped over
            with iron. This shark that I will cut and soak
            in lime has a mouth made for eating darkness
            an architecture built without a need for dawn.

The above lines bring me to another unifying element of this book–the repeated motif of pairing opposites, in this case life and death, eating and being eaten, beauty and violence. We see this again in the poem, "Low Tide Evening," where a man is eating mussels:

            But it makes her shiver, the way
            those shells split apart–like half-black

            moons that gave off no light, only

There is such a luminous, haunting quality in the above description, where she pairs light and darkness, beauty and violence, and it creates an effective tension in her poems. In "Lake of Little Birds," which references Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda, she pairs beauty and deformity–lepers "cured, but blind/and terribly disfigured. Their island overgrown/with scarlet poinsettias... hillsides...labyrinthine green...songbirds." In that same poem, she creates a tension by using synesthesia–describing one sense in terms of another: "The smell of sunlight/fading from the stones." 

The first poem in the book, "Statuary," sets up the push and pull of opposites, represented by the cranes suspended in the air and earthworms that she says:

            ...move forward
            and let the world pass
            through them they eat
            and eat at it, content to connect
            everything through
            the individual links
            of their purple bodies.

In the above lines, we see Larson's vivid details, her effective use of line breaks, and the rhythm set up by repeated consonant sounds. In this poem, she also sets up the mirroring of herself in nature's patterns:

            But somewhere between
            the crane and the worm
            between the days I pass through
            and the days that pass
            through me
            is the mind. And memory
            which outruns the body and
            grief which arrests it.

This back and forth motion of "days I pass through" and "days that pass through me" describes an ebb and flow that echoes the motion of the ocean, omnipresent throughout the book. This image pattern is repeated in the poem, "The Gardens of Tunisia:"  "There are days that walk through me/and I cannot hold them."

In these last lines of "Statuary," Larson introduces the motif of memory and grief.  In "Lake of Little Birds" she says, "We touch each other briefly/and depart. As if memory wasn't a wound to bear." Throughout the collection, we see how in the loss of a loved one, or a strained relationship, memory brings as much pain as it does comfort. In "Ghost Nets," there are the haunting lines: "Memory. The invention/of meaning. Our minds with deeps/where only symbols creep." In "Grandfather Outside" she speaks of a visit to a monastery at which they sing and pray during the night:

            so that Christ, crying falcon,

            plummeting alone       
                        through Gethsemane
            would be caught by the threads

            of a net so loyal it stretched
                        backwards through time. I never knew
            that days were held together by singing.

            Or that those who suffered
                        could be attended to
            long after they had gone.

 Then she speaks of her grief over the loss of her grandfather, and the ghost of John the Baptist, whose ankle bone she saw in the sacristy:

             Maybe tonight he'll bless me.
                        With a simple gift, one a ghost could
            give. Something like snow falling

            over the morning you died. Emptying
                        yourself into the exhausted
            arms of a hospital bed.

This image of snow covering, softening the memory of her grandfather's death is haunting. As is the phrase "emptying yourself." There is such beauty and tenderness in her desire to heal herself, and to be able to heal her grandfather back through time. In "The Oranges in Uganda" Death is personified: "He rises like a swallow/from the depth of grasses,/leaving a rip no word can cover."

Transformation is another motif that threads throughout Larsen's text. In "Ghost Nets" she speaks of how the evolution of our eyes and the octopus' relate. In the dream poem, "Risk," she morphs from having a monkey heart to becoming an egg, a grub, a girl. In the poem's ending, she stresses the importance of being open to change by having her mother, transformed to a monkey, reveal the poignant message, "You haven't much time–/risk it all." She ponders transformation in the natural world in "Metamorphosis," speaking of dragonflies and damselflies:

            ...their eyes like inky bulbs, jaws snapping
            at the light as if the world was full of
            tiny traps, each hairpin mechanism
            tripped for transformation. Such a ricochet
            of appetites insisting life, life, life against
            the watery dark, the tuberous reeds. Tell me –
            how do they survive passage? …

This ravenous appetite in the lines above runs throughout the poems, in the natural world and in poet herself. "Metamorphosis" ends with "Each lunar/resurrection, each helix churning in the cells/of a sturgeon destined for spawning," and a final brilliant transformation: "A hallway/with a thousand human brains carved out of crystal./Quiet prisms until the sunlight hits." In "Low Tide Evening," Larson says, "everywhere the spirits are hungry," "the sea always asks for more, "the gulls and shadows/involved with one thing only: hunger./She is suddenly aware of her desire for him."

While the poems of Radial Symmetry are illuminated with nature's beauty of an almost eternal quality, they are also filled with nature's fragility and impermanence, as seen in the long poem, "Ghost Nets," that references how connected we are to the sea, as many of these poems do, and how our carelessness impacts it. In her notes, Larson explains that ghost nets as "Lost or discarded gill nets, sometimes called 'ghost nets' for the way they continue to indiscriminately trap and kill organisms from seabirds to porpoises...":

            The fish, the scientists say, are gliding quietly into extinction. They hovered
            last night at the edge of my half-dream, softening their fins to a point of pure
            blur, pure erasure...

                                         ...and the stench
            of the rotting sea lion carcass with the plastic Coke bottle
            lodged inside its throat...

            The gulls cartwheeling, screaming as they shred the washed-up diapers.
Amidst these disturbing images are passages of intense beauty:

            The tide seeps in with its pewter description,
                                           simple and flat under halophytic grasses...

            We emerge from the pale nets of sleep like ghost shrimp
            in the estuaries–
                        The brain humming its electric language...

At the end of "Solarium," Larson pairs pomegranates ripening and cancer cells dividing, ending the poem with the line, "Either everything's sublime or nothing is." Her belief that all aspects of life are equal echoes the collection's title, the idea of "radial symmetry"–the arrangement of parts around a central axis, so that if you sliced the organism from one side through the center to the other side, you would wind up with two equal halves.  In the closing poem, "In a Cemetery by the Sea: One Definition of a Circle," this idea of equality surfaces again, with a quote from Euclid:  "Things that are equal to the same things are equal to each other." The poem and the collection end with the following striking lines:

            Here, the morning birds are equal to the dawn.

            The stone wall to the shore, where jellyfish like terrible offerings
                                                                        present themselves each day to rot,

            sheer centers surrounded by violet circles.
                I trace them as he would have–beginning to end.

Larson's breathtaking imagery, repeated motifs, skill with the sounds of words, infectious tone of wonder and tenderness, and mood of intimacy combine to make Radial Symmetry an exquisite collection. These radiant poems compel us to read them more than once, to grapple with the dichotomies and mysteries of life that Larsen delves into, and to revel along with her at this amazing, haunting world we inhabit.

Karen George lives in Northern Kentucky. Since she retired from computer programming to write full-time, she has enjoyed traveling to historic river towns, mountain country, and her first European trip. Her chapbook, Into the Heartland, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2011. You can find her work in Memoir, Still, ninepatch: A Creative Journal for Women and Gender Studies, Vestal Review, and Ontologica.