Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Review of Cathryn Essinger’s "The Apricot and the Moon"


The Apricot and the Moon

by Cathryn Essinger

Dos Madres Press, 2020


ISBN: 978-1-948017-78-7

79 pages



The following biography is from Dos Madres Press’ website:  

Cathryn Essinger lives in Troy, Ohio where she raises butterflies and tries to live up to her dog’s expectations of her.

She is the author of three previous books of poetry–A Desk in the Elephant House, from Texas Tech University Press, My Dog Does Not Read Plato, and What I Know About Innocence, both from Main Street Rag. Her third book contains a video poem based on the way a community remembers a local murder.  The video was produced by Cathryn’s son, Dave Essinger.  

Essinger’s poems have appeared in a wide variety of journals, including PoetryThe Southern ReviewThe New England ReviewRattle, and River Styx.  Her poems have been nominated for Pushcarts and “Best of the Net,” featured on The Writer’s Almanac, and reprinted in American Life in Poetry 

Currently, Essinger is a retired English Professor and a long standing member of the Greenville Poets.


 I met Cathryn Essinger only once, ten years ago, when I attended a 2010 poetry reading and workshop given by the Greenville Poets at Grailville Retreat and Program Center near Loveland, Ohio. She’s a Facebook friend, and I always enjoy the poems she posts when they are published in various journals. When I saw her post announcing she had a new book coming out from Dos Madres Press, I knew I’d want to read it. We also share the publisher Dos Madres Press in common. Two of my poetry collections were published by them.  Karen L. George


Review of Cathryn Essinger’s The Apricot and the Moon 

Cathryn Essinger’s new collection, The Apricot and the Moon, is an exploration and meditation on abundance, fragility, and loss; creation, imagination, and memory; time, seasons, and cycles; beauty, mystery, and magic. The poems are inhabited by connections to the moon, sun, water, and wind; family, friends, and neighbors; animals and flora. They resonate with a complex blend of longing, vulnerability, tenderness, reverence, and possibility.

I was first drawn into the collection by its title, the fact that it’s dedicated to “the Moon, our closest neighbor and most steadfast friend,” and the tiny gem of the beginning poem titled “Envy,” that sets the stage for the first section titled “She Said the Word Moon…”:   

            The moon climbs

            until she can see
            into every attic window.

 So I wasn’t surprised to see the moon appear in so many of the poems—an ever-present essence, like a main character in a novel. In the second poem titled “For the Birds,” the “I” of the poem buys a squash whose flesh she says is “pale / as the new moon, and an aroma so seminal / that it stains all thought.” The words “seminal” and “seeds” offer the moon as a symbol of fertility, an image that repeats throughout this collection.

 The poem opens with the delightful interplay between a farmer’s market grocer who is compelled to give a Bible lesson on the “Crown of Thorns” squash, and the buyer whose “sympathy is / with the squash, whose nature has been hijacked / by religion.” There is such an earthy reverence and a sense of wonder in the way she describes the squash:

                         … It fills my palm        

             with its hefty promise and I suspect it of knowing
             the true art of resurrection—seeds packed
             into a sinewy cave,

             where the pulp is so fragrant that time holds still.

 Such an alluring perception of sight and sound, and how their intensity makes time stand still. The poem ends with a striking contrast:

            With the sharp edge of a spoon, I scrape out the seeds,

            and, holding the soft entails in one hand,
            throw it all to the birds.          

The sharpness of the spoon and the motion to “scrape out the seeds” effectively rubs up against the delicateness of “holding the soft entrails in one hand.” The image of throwing it to the birds extends the idea of resurrection, because the seeds will not only sustain the birds, but they will cycle through their bodies to disperse and hopefully sprout a new squash plant.

The poem “Another Stilled Thing…” begins with another image of fertility and regeneration—a goose egg found “Tangled in the roots of the sycamore tree.” But this egg is “cold” and “abandoned,” no longer viable. The “I” of the poem cleans and saves it for “the neighbor boy / who loves stilled things— / fossils, locust husks, and sea shells, / anything that might have been, / but now is not.” Such a haunting image, and one of reverence in the way she depicts carrying it so carefully: “We honor its fragility, as if it might be / reawakened.”

“Deconstructing the Moon” is full of whimsy and mystery that spoke to me of the potential power of creativity, imagination, and language.  It begins with “She says ‘moon,’ and the word forms like a bubble, / hovering close to her lips…She says the word ‘light,’ and the moon / moves across the patio, touches the table top, / smears the grass like a slow snail…” The image of an egg recurs, when she portrays the moon climbing “to the top of the pines, / where it breaks like an egg yolk, spilling color / down upon the tree…”

 The poem “What He Saw…” furthers this meditation on imagination and wonder. A man in a restaurant sees a woman who “holds the moon between two fingers / like a pearl and then places it in the sky / between the church steeple / and the distant river.” The woman leaves and the moon continues its rise, while the man thinks about “the girl who created / the moment,” and “thinks / about a watercolor by Monet // and then a Van Gogh arbor painted / ‘by moonlight.’” The poem ends with the gorgeous image of the moon reflected in the man’s “empty cup”:

                    …the moon, that sweet conspirator,
                bends over the table and he sees
                the smooth china of her face,
                reflected in his empty cup.

 I love the way the reflection of “her face” also suggests that he sees the woman’s face as well as the moon’s.    

 In “Alas…” the “I” of the poem contemplates the mystery, wonder, and worry of bones and the skeletal system, how she does not like to think of her “good bones” without her, which repeats the fragility of life theme in the earlier poem “Another Stilled Thing” as well as the transitory nature of our imaginings in “What He Saw…” “Alas” also brings up the idea that repeats throughout the book—our relations to, and histories with, others. She says, “[I] feel for that bump on the back of my head / that my mother said made me family.”

 “All Hollows” talks of being scared by an inflatable ghost, “the spider that drops beside my ear,” “the ominous creak of an empty chair,” one of several poems about the changing seasons, holidays we celebrate, the rituals we enact. To end the poem, she very effectively turns and widens her observations into intriguing thoughts and a question, again bringing up the idea of life’s impermanence, and the importance of finding the scared, the holy in the everyday—another belief that weaves through and links these poems together:

             By morning the ghost will be nothing but a puddle,

             his plastic smirk buried in the grass,
            a sad reminder that everything can be deflated
            in the light of day, and now I regret having
            wished him ill. Who am I to prick the illusion,
            to name the shades that honor the night,
            especially here, in November’s first light, when
            suddenly everything seems holy, cold and bare?         

The two poems that follow “All Hallows” are centered on black cats. In “To Name the Moon,” she describes one gracefully, carefully walking the length of a fallen branch in “life or death practice for the day / when she will climb higher than ever before, // her last life held firmly between her teeth.” The poem ends with the wistful image of the cat in heaven “ready to argue for nine more chances to spit // at feral dogs, tempt the thinnest of ledges, name / the August moon, and call all of her children home.”  

This idea of regeneration interlaces throughout the collection. In “For Boo,” another black cat, perhaps the same one, has died and her owner is asking the gods to “Make clear the midnight path for her…Let there be catnip…Let her voice be heard…” in the end, desiring that if she’s threatened or longs for remembered places, “let her return to me as a familiar, / a shade, a companion beside my door, / her voice too persistent to be ignored.” 

The poet’s bond with the moon resurfaces, along with a connection to neighbors in the poems “Super Moon” and “A Corner of the Moon.” In “Super Moon,” she sits a chair outside to watch the moon, and is joined by a neighbor who whittles. I absolutely love that she has a book in her lap and headphones on, because she says, “I don’t want my neighbors to think / that I am doing nothing except watch the moon.” When the neighbor asks what she’s listening to, she admits nothing, and he suggests she learn to whittle. The poem ends so dreamily, when she asks if her neighbor will teach her, and he agrees, saying, “you begin by looking / at the moon…”  

“A Corner of the Moon” is a fascinating reverie that combines the everyday world seamlessly with the fantastical. It begins:  

            Last night I saw my neighbor throw

            one leg over a corner of the moon.
            He must have ridden it like that,
            cowboy style, all night long.
            I didn’t see him again until dawn,
            when he came whistling up the street,
            slapping moon dust from his jeans.
The narrator of the poem then offers him coffee “in my best china cup,” and the following happens:  

            [I] watched him lift it to his weathered face,

            saw the coffee eclipse the cup, rise
            and then fall back again upon itself,
            the way the night overtakes the day…

 Such a gorgeous image joining the coffee to the moon and its cycles, and the transformation of night into day and back. It also recalls the earlier poem, “What He Saw…,” with its image of the moon and the woman reflected in a man’s coffee cup. The way images reflect off other images, deepening them, is one element of this book that makes it so satisfying, so unforgettable.

 She says the man’s eyes stopped her from asking what she “wanted to know about moonlight / and darkness.” Before he leaves, she says he “whispered into her dark ear, That’s just / the way things are…just the way they are.” Life’s magic and mystery are another thread that resonates through these poems, along with images and circumstances of light and darkness.  

The last two poems of the first section speak of connection, longing, and loss. 

“Missing Wakayama” contains an epigraph of “for my son, in Nachi, Japan.” This suggests to me that the narrator went to visit her son in Japan, and now misses both the city and her son. 

In “Serendipity” the narrator carves a pumpkin for a friend in memory of a cat who recently died, commenting:


            he persists the way black cats do,

            moving quick-silver in the October

            twilight, tricking us into believing
            that with moonlight and darkness
            all things become possible.

 One of the main themes of the second section of the book titled “Tangled in Time…” is the passing of time, and the stilling of time. It also delves into connection to the natural world, the idea of naming things, and the magical.

The section opens with “The Blue Heron, Fishing,” in which she names a blue heron Heraclitus “because every day / he steps // into my stream / and every day // I follow in the wake / of his stepping.” Such a beautiful association established, and, since it references Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, this stream reminded me of a quote attributed to him:   “You could not step twice into the same rivers; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” And a similar quote: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” which reflects the ideas of life’s fragility and impermanence that runs throughout these poems. This poem also echoes the idea of naming and the power of words, referenced in earlier poems—the one where a black cat in heaven gets to name the August moon.

 “Reading Basho by Fern Light” is a captivating flight of imagination in which reading the Japanese poet Basho leads to all manner of magical moments. She and the clock “take turns spelling / hiragana until even the fern decides / to give it a try.” The fern says “Hello” in Japanese syllabic characters, “dipping a frond / to the turtle in the aquarium, to the dog / asleep on the rug.” The poem continues with: 

            Together we make the sign for green,

            and wonder if anyone has noticed.
            The violet seems attentive,

            with that open face, simple blossom, as if
            he did not know the season… 

The poem goes on with she and the fern signing “white, joy, happiness, lovely…and her favorite—the sun!” They converse about language, translation, the “immediacy / of sunlight, the nightly plunge into darkness / the motion of stars, the little grief / at the end of every day.” This poem explores the magic that can happen when reading poetry, and the power of the imagination and language, and the mysteries we encounter every day. 

“Heliotrope” is a meditation on time and some of the instruments that keep it—a microwave clock, stove clock, a mantel clock, a grandfather clock “who always / lags a moment behind, the shadow / of the earth eclipsing the moon // above his numeraled face.” She goes on with the grandfather clock: 

                    …He understands

            that time is not some digital mystery,
            but a slow grinding of the cosmic gears,  

            the turning of the earth measured against

            its own circumference…25,000 miles around
            its middle and still we say time flies. 

I’m mesmerized as this poet ponders time and its mysteries and contradictions, such as: “Today my son is flying west, ahead of the sun, / arriving before he has left…” She ends the poem with the sunflowers that “followed the light so faithfully” and how they “long for earthly time, / the darkness of the soil, the steady / tick-tock of the sleeping seed.”  Such an evocative image of the seeds waiting for their time to regenerate, an impression which replays in earlier poems. In “Zinnias” the poet talks about chores at the end of summer, such as cutting back the zinnias, and “gather[ing] a few seeds to tuck away.” The poem ends on such a fine, wistful note: 

            hoping to plant them in the spring, knowing

            that you will forget where you saved them,
            and they will slumber in a forgotten place

            wanting to be zinnias, but stalled forever
            in some empty space, neither here nor gone. 

Again, we see this idea of regeneration positioned against the fragility of life. The “stalled forever” phrase so perfectly echoes the goose egg in an early poem that the narrator takes to a neighbor boy “who loves stilled things…anything that might have been, / but now is not.” These visions of possibility and hope braid throughout the book, creating a haunting sense of longing and regret. 

The poem titled “A Story: Twelve Moments Tangled by Time” is a series of tiny moments of the natural world observed, what I think of as “stilled time” preserved in twelve haiku-like stanzas. In one “The wind has a story to tell, / I listen as if / it were meant for me.” In another, “The story tangles in the branches / of the sycamores / still lost in the shadows.” One I particularly like was the following, which mirrors for me the poem “Reading Basho by Fern Light.” 

            I am more interested in blackbirds,

               whose calligraphy
            I do not know how to read. 

The time theme proceeds with “The Hourglass,” which the poet says, “doesn’t measure anything / without a little nudge to get it started.” It also speaks of memory, another idea that threads through the collection:  “Memory does not honor time, but flings / its shade across any course you’ve charted.” 

“On the Stairway” is an evocative retelling of a simple moment of pleasure stilled in time that remains a secret nourishment in a man’s life: 

            He was coming up the stairs

            as she was coming down,

            and for a moment his eyes
            were level with her sandaled foot, 

            the painted nails, the pale arch.

            He saw her toes lap gently over 

            the edge of the step, and then

            her arch rose, and she continued 

            to move away from him. 

How interesting that the man never saw more of her than the details revealed above. He says he intentionally didn’t turn around to see more. We don’t know if she was someone he knew or a stranger. We don’t know if it was an inside or outside stairway. It appears to be a stairway he climbs somewhat frequently. He reveals that he never told anyone, not even his lover. “He kept / the moment to himself, a selfish pleasure / perhaps, but it was such a small thing.” But it’s evident that this moment of beauty meant something larger to him. He says, “Odd how you can take such moments / with you—they ride along like shadows, // almost unseen.” The poem ends with the confirmation of how much he relished that tiny, secret moment in time: 

            And yet, he never climbed the stairway,

            never let his eyes fall on that particular 

            place, without remembering, without

            thinking to himself, How lovely. 

I appreciate the mystery of this stolen moment, and his memory of it, and how much pleasure such tiny bits of stilled time and their re-creation or remembering, can afford us all in life. 

The poem “Away” revisits such remembered moments, and the stillness of them, how you “drift away…to wherever away is—that small space // that we promise ourselves, / that precious thing from childhood // within reach once again.” She goes on to describe that still moment of being away: 

                                                 …It is the step

            you take backwards before opening           

            a door, the calm just before sleep,

            a moment to remember whoever 

            you truly are. 

She speaks further of the mystery and sacredness of memory:  “But, deep in memory, there is a charm, / a talisman that knows you are never // really gone, that you are here and away / all at the same time.” There is such nostalgia and tenderness in the poem’s ending lines of a memory invoked by a childhood photo her mother took of her “on an unremarkable summer / day when there didn’t seem to be // an end to anything, much less to love.” 

“Someday, the Sycamores…” is a magical imagining of sycamore trees having the ability to “pick up their roots / and walk away…” It takes place along a creek, and ends with the speaker of the poem witnessing just such a moment of wonder: 

            And if you watch carefully, if you sit down in the dark

            when the moon, that old tattletale, is out of sight,
            you will see them stand 

            on gnarled knuckles and inch away, see them gather up

            their children, hand in hand, and even if you call,
            they will not turn back. 

“Beside Spring Creek” recreates another moment alongside a creek near a sycamore “suspended between the reflected world / and the one above, // we can no longer tell the difference between / the shimmer of the water and the gleam / of a September sky.” 

In “The Old Heron, Rising,” she again follows a heron who she says, “refuses to migrate.” It’s spring now, but the heron “understands // that beginnings always foreshadow their ends.” The poet reads to her dog in “After Flushing His First Muskrat,” the legend about how “it was the muskrat who made the Earth.” I so loved how she goes into the dog’s mind, his thoughts about the story she’s reading him. He recalls the moment at the creek with the muskrat: 

            Mostly, he remembers the smell of wet musk in

            his nostrils, the adrenaline rush as the animal           

            dove between his legs and slid into the current.

            And then it was gone, leaving only the world that
            he loves behind—the mud beneath his feet, 

            water pushing forward, the dizzying mix of sun

            and shadow. Of course the story was true—
            why would anyone doubt it? Just look around… 

In “Gossip” yearlings whisper secrets to trees, who repeat it to sparrows and “sometimes / early in the morning, when there is still water / in the gutters and before traffic has begun, / they repeat it in a language that even I / can understand—Everything will be / different today, but nothing has changed.” 

The themes of time, memory, and loss extend into the third section titled “Now, and Again,” which starts with the tender poem “Summer Apples.” The poet is making an apple pie for her mother “who is not gone / but whose memory has become / so transparent that she remembers // slicing apples with her grandmother / (yellow apples; blue bowl) better than / the fruit that I hand her today.” It ends on a note that echoes earlier ones of regeneration, which also gorgeously mirrors the generations of humans in this poem: 

            And so, I slice as close as I dare to the core—

            to that little cathedral to memory—where 

            the seeds remember everything they need

            to know to become yellow and transparent. 

In the poem “Now, and Again” the poet is reminded of an old T-shirt her mother washed until it was so thin she “could see right through // to another time, to a landscape gauzy / through cotton mesh, where the Iowa / cornfields lie smothered in summer heat. // And I know now that time can be / caught in the thinnest of nets.” Such a breathtaking image of memory and time. 

The title poem “The Apricot and the Moon” tells of the 2017 Solar Eclipse, and shows the poet, and who I assume is her mother, arranging a grapefruit, an orange, and an apricot on a table, and “set both to spinning to show / how something small can eclipse the view // of something much larger than itself.” The “you” of the poem brings the apricot in front of her eye, and names what she can no longer see all night, until the daughter puts her to bed. There is such reverence and tenderness in the following lines: 

            I am afraid for you, until I remember that you

            have an apricot to protect you from the things
            you do not want to see.  

In “How Words Become Things” the poet tells how her two-year-old granddaughter calls the moon “balloon,” and speaks of the power and failings of language: 

            Already she knows           

            that every metaphor is a lie, and that language

            alone will never suffice, no matter how words
            rub against the things 

            they want to become… 

The idea of regeneration enters again in the poem “Of Course,” where the poet views a sonogram of a grandchild-to-be and sees “a face so familiar that I know / I have seen you in another life.” This poem is filled with such joy, tenderness, and vulnerability, ending with the moving lines: 

                  …And when you are my age,

            with the texture of a full life behind you, 

            remember me, please. Remember that I knew

            you in this picture before I knew your name. 

“Cooking Soba in Ohio” returns to the poet’s son living in Japan, in a breathtaking way of imagining her way to visit him. While she cooks soba noodles, “steam…misting the air,” she envisions herself traveling “past plains, / coastal waters, oceans, and then // to a small town half way around / the world, and now I’m in the street, / looking for you...” 

In “Anniversary,” she depicts a couple in a strip mall parking lot, the husband loading groceries and lumber into their vehicle: “He taps his wife on the shoulder and says, / Look at the moon…” The woman “wonders how they came / to this moment, a middle aged couple, / children grown and on their own…and after all these years, / this moon still advertising, still outshining / anything that the world has to offer.” 

This third and last section comes full circle, returning to autumn and holidays in a poem about carving a pumpkin, “The Carving Ritual” and a poem “Halloween.” In “Raking Leaves” she says she knows each kind of leaf and needle by “the sound of the rake,” imagining how the leaves “mumble, gossip, whisper among themselves, / refusing to be rushed into forgetfulness.” 

The book concludes with the poem “In October, We Count Our Losses,” in which the poet accidentally brings in a caterpillar with a bunch of parsley she picked from the garden. She sets him “in the middle of a bouquet / of parsley, dill and rue, where he continues / to eat while we set the table, stir the soup.” 

They talk about all the caterpillar survived to get there, and about “people and places” they lost, and “how grief can become its own comfort…” 

The caterpillar crawls away and is forgotten. She enters the future in the following lines: 

            It will be a month before I find him

            wrapped into a papery chrysalis, 

            plain and nondescript, a little mummy,

            tucked on the underside of a chair,
            where we will wait until spring, sheltering 

            on the porch while snow and rain pelt

            the aging screens. 

She imagines how in spring she will “find him reborn, clinging / to the farthest screen, wings catching / the sunlight, warming to a new day.” The poem and the book end on this haunting, hopeful note: 

There are so many of winter’s little griefs

            that I might bring with me into this Spring,
            but I open the window, let them fly away. 

Cathryn Essinger’s The Apricot and the Moon delves into our connections to each other and the natural world, revolving around the mysteries, complexities, and dualities of being human. These poems pulse with layered, repeated imagery of beauty and opulence, light and darkness, moments of stillness and intimacy that braid into a rhythmic whole of life’s seasons and cycles. They will fill you with awe and comfort.


Visit her website to learn more about her other books and to find links to her published poems at:  Cathryn Essinger.


Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, enjoys photography and visiting forests, museums, cemeteries, historic towns, and bodies of water. She is author of five chapbooks, and two poetry collections from Dos Madres Press: Swim Your Way Back  (2014) and A Map and One Year (2018). You can find her work in Sheila-na-gig Online, Salamander Magazine, Thimble Magazine, Atticus Review, and Indianapolis Review. She holds an MFA from Spalding University. Visit her website at: https://karenlgeorge.blogspot.com/.



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