There are 46 poems in this volume (the author's second full-length collection), divided into four sections.  The author's first book, "The Ninety-Third Name of God" , introduced us to her family and especially to her diagnosis--inflammatory breast cancer--the disease discovered in 2004 during her pregnancy, the disease that claimed that claimed her life in August, 2018, when she was forty-nine-years old.  This second collection continues Silver's illness narrative, poems that might serve as a journal of her journey through treatment, anger, despair, determination, and faith.


The collection opens with a poem, "Dedication" (p.1), dedicating the poems that follow to those "dear friends" who share, and so understand, the sufferings of ongoing illness. The implication is that healthy people cannot, yet, truly enter that world and, in fact, "fear" those who must live there.  Yet Silver's poems are a way into that universe.  Tender and fierce, the poems in this collection seem to arise fully formed from the deepest part of Silver's existence. The poems in section I present us with the harsh realities of illness and the anticipation of loss.  In the acknowledgements, (p.72), the author notes that the poems in this section are "in honor of my sisters with inflammatory and advanced breast cancer." In "Advent, First Frost," she likens that "feathered prophecy" to "a bowl of frozen tears" (p.6) and in "Stage IV," she writes that she is "taboo, now," that she and others use words that once embarrassed them, "courage, prayer, miracle."  Even so, she is aware that "Our passports have been stamped-- / our wrists and collar bones have been marked" (p.7). In a lovely prose poem on page 11, she writes in memory of her friend, Susan: "Ulysses will sail the storms till he dies.  And so, my dear ones, will we" (p.11), combining, as she often does, the reality of approaching death with hope, dignity, and strength.  In "Leaving the Hospital" (p.23) and "On a Line from Virginia Woolf's Diary," Silver celebrates the return, even if temporary, to life: "And the day takes my body back simply, / the way a mother dresses her child" (p.14).  For me, the most moving poem in this section is the title poem, "I Watched You Disappear" (p. 22-23).  It is a litany of regret, loss, anger, and pain, related not in poetic images but in plain and deeply human language: "I hate spring, its prettiness. / Your heart kept beating. Why didn't it just stop?"

Section II consists of seven, short one-stanza poems based on images from Grimms' fairy tales. It seems that the first two lines of each poem serve as metaphorical statements about the realities of advanced breast cancer. "Owl Maiden" begins "No transformation's instant. / Her hair fell out first, replaced by quills" (p.29). "
Strawberries in Snow" begins "Belief comes easily to the ill. / Miracles fall from their lips like gems" (p.31).  And "The Flowered Skull" offers these opening lines: "The magician finds them, young or old, / mothers, maidens--to him--no matter--" (p.34).  The final poem in this section is a tale told to her son, Noah.  In "The Hazel Tree," Silver is the mother who "died and grew into a tree," "each nut a word she'd grown to tell her son / now that her speaking human voice was gone" (p.35). 

In Section III, she turns, as she did in her first collection, to poems about her family.  She visits again the (actual) doors of her life ("Doors" p.39), expresses regret at being impatient with her son, "Ubi Caritas Deus Ibi Est" (p.41), and in other poems examines moments of her family life, especially those shared with her son, father, sister, and husband.  This section's poems rarely mention illness, yet as they share family stories, they hint at the inevitability of loss.  The final poem in this section, "Sea Glass," ends with lines that could be applied as well to the way poems might be born from the wages of a life: "Something salvaged, sunlit, / gem-like.  Something saved / from the grinding into grit" (p.55).   

Section IV, like section II, contains only seven poems, three of them commentaries on paintings and, through those commentaries, observations on illness and suffering as well.  "Late Renoir" speaks of how the artist painted to "smudge away doubt" and to submerge "the mutilations of war, his dead wife, / the black he banished from his palette" (p.59).  The long poem "Valentine Gode-Darel (1873-1915)" is a reflection on the five paintings by Ferdinand Hodler that captured his lover's sickness, decline, and death (p.60).  "Portraits in the Country," (page 63), offers a glimpse into the poet's resignation and acceptance of death, a mindset supported by her faith in both the human and the holy: "But I will not rush to put down my sash. / Instead, I will turn the leaf of my book.  See with what gentle gravity God / lets it hover, in balance, then fall to its side."  The book's last poem, "The Firebird," suggests that words, especially poems, might hold truths that sound louder than the approach of death: "The bell ringing in your throat will drown / out the train's slow grieving" (p.67).

These poems are beautifully crafted, often primal, and they touch the deepest reaches of personal illness and the shadow of mortality.  Readers who have breast cancer or who have family or friends living with breast cancer, might find these poems difficult to read--others under the same circumstances might find them difficult and yet, at the same time, essential.  For me, dealing with the reality of an aggressive breast cancer afflicting someone I love, these poems provide a window into an experience I can only observe from a distance, even if that distance is only an embrace away.  These poems provide a portal into the emotions, fears, regrets, and pleas that might be hiding behind a patient's or a loved one's exterior of cheerful optimism and determination.  We can't walk the path that a woman with advanced breast cancer is traveling.  But these poems help us be companions on the way.


Strawberries in Snow" was first published in the Bellevue Literary Review (V12N1).  You can read it here:


Louisiana State University Press

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Baton Rouge



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