Chapbook Review: Absence of Stars by Nicole Rollender
Absence of Stars
dancing girl press
In the 13 poems within Nicole Rollender's chapbook Absence of Stars (dancing girl press, 2015),“A hummingbird’s skeleton opens my hands / like a flower.” This chapbook is filled with flowers and bones, flight toward the light and falling down onto the ground, tiny and helpless. The beginning of the collection is inspired by the early birth of a tiny baby, a living life form that emerged from the womb too soon, a new life that starts out with skin attached to nearly death-like bones. The bones of the baby connect simultaneously to memories of the past and the bones of the dead, but also to a meditation on what this child's bones will grow into and how life will handle that new body.
These bones feature prominently in the first poem of the book, entitled “Necessary Work”:
Roman poets put skulls in their love poems – the mortal with the immortal, the dark in the brilliant death-light; the plum falling
from its long branch, then sweetly decomposing. The excruciating parting of our two bodies, that was necessary. Your tiny body – you can’t
even drink my milk – sleeps in my palm. Holding you, my hand is a cradle
The bones connect to the carnage of wild life and what lies beneath or beyond or above—the possibility of the next life, of heaven. The throwing of salt and flinging of apples and tossing of flowers. The licking of salt and other small rituals involving bread and milk and bread and bones and bread and more flowers. In the poem "Alms for Birds,” Rollender writes:
...Hidden once, I watched
my father kick a dog against a fence,
as I ate honeysuckle
seasick, forming the place where my child
is a wetted bird broken out too
Here Rollender highlights the interconnections of sinners and saints, parent and child, human and non-human, and haunted souls of the living and the dead. "Does the flock / that leaves one drowned in the river ever forget its black wings and shimmering eye?" she asks.
The living and the dead surround each other throughout the "Absence of Stars" as does the darkness and the light. In “Lullaby,” Rollender depicts a brutal scene:
When he fell, Mama
was twisting a duck’s neck out back, a mercy
he landed skull first.
Her hands tracing bones, cranium bottom-pierced
to let the spirit
flash out from the body...
Rollender’s chapbook is full of these darker edged elements, uneasy emotions, twinges of viscera, and snapped necks alongside delicate land-based, plant-based imagery. Appealingly, these dark and light aspects are often uniquely intertwined within mere lines of each other. A good example of such entwinement takes place within the beginning of the title poem:
This is the oldest part of the cemetery, then, this snow dripping in bone yards,
bones, bones – delicate milk teeth, scooped from a mother’s grave by a woman, peeling apples,
the morning light and somewhere a heart is cleaving,
On a personal level, it is interesting to me how Rollender openly identifies herself as Catholic and offers many God-like and Biblical elements in her poems (within this "Absence of Stars" chapbook and also within her "Bone of My Bone" chapbook, which was recently published by my own Blood Pudding Press). Not only is Rollender’s writing style unique, emotional, and visceral, there is also nothing black and white or right and wrong about her content. It is mentally connected and haunted in both light and dark ways. It is questioning (of the past, present, and future), female body-based (including discomfort associated with parts of the living body combined with joy for parts of what the body can do combined with pain and what the body can handle and how it can unexpectedly malfunction), and drawn to another dimension in a haunted sort of way. Some of Rollenders’ poems' visceral aspects remind me of my young overly sensitive Catholic mind being strongly drawn to the torture of female saints, being terribly fearful of hell, and feeling as if I was not good enough for heaven—not because of how I behaved, but because of the creepy, gruesome images that lived inside my mind.
I relate to Rollender's mind for its open expressiveness, for how it does not attempt to hide the uncertainty and questions—the unsettling dark parts of life. Rollender coalesces the light and the dark and thus instigates thoughts and feelings about life, death, and their intermingling. As Rollender puts it in her poem "Breviary Notes”:
dreams of my mother devouring the light.
Overflowing bowl of collarbones.
I run on stripped feet in a river forever tearing rocks.
One of my ribs wrapped
in feathers. Where my soul is a place, the flare
of paradise, snow...
Nicole Rollender is editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Radar Poetry, Salt Hill Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, is newly available from ELJ Publications. She is the author of the chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her online at nicolerollender.com.
Juliet Cook is a grotesque glitter witch medusa hybrid brimming with black, grey, silver, purple, and red explosions. Her poetry has appeared in a peculiar multitude of literary publications. She is also the editor and publisher of Blood Pudding Press (which publishes print poetry chapbooks) and Thirteen Myna Birds (Blood Pudding Press's spooky little sister, an online blog style lit mag). You can find out more at www.JulietCook.weebly.com.