REVIEW: MARLENE DIETRICH’S EYES | BY ISABELLA COLALILLO-KATZ

merging dimensions coverEkstasis Editions | October 2014 | 128 pages | $23.95 | Purchase online
Review by Josie Di-Sciascio-Andrews

A child’s wide eyed beauty transforms into a woman’s gaze brimming with wonder. Innocence and artistic sensibility, tempered by life and the myriad waves of experience, chisel away at the superfluous skin of the soul, revealing the goddess: Inanna, Tara, Cassandra, Mary, Pythia, Astarte, Lupa, witchy Gala, Magistra, Lamia, Eve, Marlene Dietrich.

“Poetry is language in orbit,” wrote Seamus Heaney. Word upon word emerging in segments of blank space. A poet’s interplanetary imagination and memory etch life’s journey from birth through time, projecting dreams into the eternal. From the “balcony of [an] ancestral home” to the streets of Toronto, history and the circular meanderings of the self are interwoven with myth and the sonority of language. These are poems of reflection of things past, as well as contemplations of the present moment rife with possibility. Bound in the timeless metaphor and glamour of Marlene Dietrich’s eyes, this collection gathers within its pages, as in the cartography of a woman’s days, “glissands of truth” and “an ageless seeing.” The writing accrues from beginning to end forming an atemporal, holographic image of the feminine. Iconic blue eyes glance at us, as “she sits on a bed of sunlight,” ageless in a “corner of the universe.” A woman alone in time-space, cinematic, a star among human stars, like the goddesses she embodies, breathing in the beauty of eternity. The allegory of the quintessential feminine archetype takes shape within the perimeters of the poet’s own geographies, her biographical self, tethered to the people and places her heart houses. In sequence, the poems embrace the passage through time with its inherent beauty and pain of love and motherhood, encompassing the dissonance of “history’s dark clouds,” where “anger and hate become slogan.” Marlene Dietrich’s eyes “see clearly the tainted heart of her people.” Strength and determination in the face of adversity are her power. Silence in view of wrongdoing can be no option for one with the spirit of Diana. The sceptre of wisdom was always in Nimue’s pale hands, though kings and wizards claimed it as their own. Intercessor to the divine, she was “a woman who fought back, who never gave up,” and “who was never silent.”

“Our becoming arranges itself as flight.” Through the redemptive power of imagination, we take wings and we “sail on arrows of human time.” For the poet as well as the reader “there are questions, moments, feelings, thoughts,” where we are at times churning reality and at times sailing through it, while yet at others ruminating. After all of our rational calculations however, we return to the magical stillness of our own centre, poised like trees strengthened by windstorms, our essence “distilled in a cartography of flesh and bone, a sublime gift.” From birth we entered “earthplane through a door of light,” yet our “first memories taste of blood.” From the metaphysical to the physical, the language of poetry treads in the realm of the ethereal membrane between the spiritual and the corporeal. Love sutures “form to fire” – from light to matter our body manifests into “a new conception, another journey into unforgiving time.” Spirit pours through the light into the new receptacle of the body, “blood made flesh.” These poems move in succession through the pivotal moments of a woman’s life, she who is a “hieratic spark, a holy birther of holies”, endowed with the gift of words, “a sybil mouth”. At the entrance of Plato’s cave, we unearth a being who has reclaimed the validity of the self away from all the surrounding, fragmenting sources. Through the act of writing, the poet stands firm, becomes an oracle. “A woman never surrenders though child and lover,” and I may add society, “shatter her solitude. She remembers dialogues with her original self, when gorgeous comets trailed from her eyes”. It is here, when the poet is alone with her muse that she “gathers hoards of stars and the night into [her] body, [as] mountain mists descend like breath across the vast solitude of the valley, longing for what [her] heart knew and had forgotten”.

This beautiful compilation of poems stitches “moments woven from silence”, remembrances of mother, father, friends, “roads that go into the world” and always bring the poet back to “memories of places and people” now changed or erased. The garden and the “fragrant, thick-lipped roses” are now left untended. The landscape has reclaimed people and blooms. “There’s little left of the old world” the poet writes of her native Biferno upon revisiting it in middle age. “The only thing ever present” is “the river flowing silver and silent as ever”. The arrow of time tramples on our human smallness, makes dust of our assumptions. Consolation to our finitude can only be the belief in the immortality of our connection to the intangible wellspring of all being. We can rest assured in the knowing that “we are the living skein of First Source”. In “Evolutionary Angel”, we move through our lives as “the wandering limbs of time portals.” We are “the tonal alchemy of his hands,” creatures of the “new learning of his cosmic eyes”.

The roses, the children and all the loved ones time has smudged out of the picture, can be reclaimed by encapsulating them in words. The self remains stable through the act of writing. Poetry, the great synthesizer of life’s disparate and often irreconcilable experiences redeems, through the alchemy of art, all that is broken, doomed otherwise to death and decay. Though “the lines in my face deepen like spider webs”, we read, they are “messengers [that] report the existence of the invisible [and] catalogue quantifiable journeys”. The personal, as well as the historical events that carve their initials on the skin of our lives, are no match for the power of myth-making and poetics. “Though the greedy and the war mongers are unrelenting and shaming”, and while they ask us “to consume bread and people” because “they have armies to secure order through destruction”, poetry leads us back to safety, to “a place for words to drop their load of pain. I want to love this pen and this page that listens,” writes the poet in “I wanna love the night”. I want to love “these poems that trickle down my throat [like] cups of black tea, neurotic as the morning, waiting for hope and moonlight.” The poetic eye sees right through “the dissonant rhetoric spouting war narratives for the transcendental ignorance of the serpent sons of darkness.” It is a discerning eye reclaiming the essence through the chaff of every epoch’s charlatans “dealing out death on the high altars of electric Babylon”. History will continue to be peopled with merciless tyranny, but alongside the horrors proliferated by the lower natures of ego and greed, life will continue to offer the gifts of life, family, love, beauty and art. Swaddled in imagination, glamorous and timeless, the goddess calls us back to Yeat’s falconer, away from chaos and darkness. Slouching towards us on a quilt of light, she beckons us back to truth with her smokey eyes. She is our lover and our mother, our muse. “I’m here.” She reassures us. “I’m coming. I’ll find you”. At times vulnerable and human like the rest of us, Cassandra contemplates death in the throes of her despair. “I can’t hold my life,” she sings, and yet this “queen of thorns” searching for her “bardo ticket” guides us like Virgil, through the inferal paths of brokenness into the light of spiritual wholeness. “I can’t hold your words”, invokes the poet as if they were fiery coals hot from the forge of creation. This is indeed poetry of the soul where the words themselves are steppingstones for the alchemical quest.

With her polished pebbles, Isabella Colalillo Katz leads us into the metaphysical labyrinth of the self. There, inside the well of the heart, everything converges: mother, father, childhood, friends, loves, homes, joy, pain, history, landscapes, time, the universe. “My heart is a place to know your wonder, to remember and imagine the spark and photon of your air and fire”. The poet “walks between the lines, through old thoughts and fresh tears, past sips of doubt, deeper into the timeless.”

Isabella Colalillo Katz is a terrific contemporary poet. Her gifts are her words gathering everyday moments into poetic images and meditative ponderings of the sublime. Through the lens of Marlene Dietrich’s archetype, these well crafted poems lead us through the difficult journey of the experiential through to the healing power of myth-making. In the end, we are ourselves left feeling wizened by everything we have read. Through crystal cut, engaging language we are led into the gentle, yet riveting eyes of a woman’s heart. This labyrinth of thorns and winding paths into the self is the ultimate essence of source and of all knowing. The poem taps the poet on the shoulder and reminds her that “life is the soul’s need for love. That love is the conscious measure, the quantifiable grammar of our metaphysical longings, its holy geometry scrawling real time images into bony words.” Ultimately, I believe we are invited to “croon and remember” our own lives with our own eyes, “moist and half-lidded,” to dream within the dream “of starlight, of twinkling village”s and the snowy glitter of the cities we now inhabit, to forge our own poetic “Nachtgedanke.”

Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews has written five collections of poetry: The Whispers of Stones, Sea Glass, The Red Accordion, Letters from the Singularity, and A Jar of Fireflies. Nature and one’s place in it, as well as memory and social justice, are her muse. Her poems “The Red Accordion” and “Emerald City” were shortlisted for Descant‘s Winston Collins Best Canadian Poem Prize and The Malahat Review‘s Open Seasons Award respectively. In 2015, her poem “Ghost” received first prize in Toronto’s Big Pond Rumours Journal Contest. Josie is the author of two non-fiction books: How The Italians Created Canada and In the Name of Hockey. She lives, teaches, and writes in Oakville Ontario, Canada.

  • L Tait

    Great review, Jose. Smart, intelligent, thought provoking, and made me want to know more about Isabella and her poetry.