The epigraph to San Francisco writer Cheryl Dumesnil’s first book of poetry, In Praise of Falling, winner of University of Pittburgh Press’s Agnes Starrett Lynch Poetry Prize, is a Zen proverb: “fall down seven times, get up eight.” According to the poet, this quote is also her book’s “overarching theme.” These poems describe many different kinds of falling, from the simple act of a leaf following the force of gravity, to the complexities of falling in and out of love, falling into the hands of an abusive alcoholic father, away from family and heterosexuality, into the mind of an autistic child, away from belief.But they always lead back to a kind of faith, even if it is simply faith in change. Each poem strives for emotional and formal balance and a sincerity of feeling rare in contemporary poetry. The result is an accessible collection of poems that calm and inspire rather than astound with complex formal experimentation, hip irony, or high drama.
Evocative bits of narrative, interrupted by graceful images that evoke divine connection to a cosmic force beyond daily existence...
The book is divided into four sections. The first, “Theories,” depicts the poet’s present world; “Changing Room,” speaks to childhood and early adult experiences; “Somewhere in a Box Marked Keep,” evokes the disappointments and questions of adulthood; and the poems in “Say Yes” are hymns to acceptance. Reading “In Praise of Falling” in sequence, I could clearly see the “overarching theme” of the book’s epigraph.The poems reach back and forth in time, convey desire, longing, fear, questioning, dip their toes in despair then change perspective,
push forward, praise life with gratitude and awe.
...are cradled inside carefully wrought structures that never call too much attention to themselves.
From the book’s opening poem, “It’s Not Armageddon,” Dumesnil sets a tone of calm distance and gentle humor. The poet’s language is demotic and spare yet polished, with a musical lilt. Evocative bits of narrative, interrupted by graceful images that evoke divine connection to a cosmic force beyond daily existence, are cradled inside carefully wrought structures that never call too much attention to themselves.
spreading across amber fog from north to south
across the September sky. And no that’s not
a metaphor for depression, or the slow death
of love. Not even with its signature reference
to the season of falling leaves. It’s just smoke
from a brush fire two hundred miles away…
The poem is a series of couplets that visualize a dialectic between self and world, human and divine. The brush fire is “just/ash dusting the parking lot, like dandruff/brushed from the shoulder of an itchy god.”
“Bernal Heights,” another poem in the first section, is a fourteen line non-rhyming sonnet in praise of a San Francisco neighborhood. In just a few lines, Dumesnil captures the tense energy of a young boy: “Knit cap rolled down to eyebrows, corduroys/slouched below hip bones” who “leaned into/Good Life Grocery’s door, yelled to the butcher/Yo—cops took us fishing. Lookit here—.” The boy holds a fish in his hand, “an arc of silver/ lifted in the air.” “Way to go, Jackpot,” says the butcher. The boy walks out of the store, “his image flashing in storefront windows,/that fish swinging from his hand, like a comet/fallen to earth, a song of luck, of winning.” “Bernal Heights,” like its namesake San Francisco community, is not another gritty city ’hood but an urban paradise with a supermarket named “Good Life Grocery” (which really does exist) and adults who know how to bolster and empower children.
To me, the most interesting structure that Dumesnil employs in this collection is one that makes that Zen proverb “Fall down seven times, get up eight” concrete and visual. At least a dozen poems are written in triplet stanzas with stepped margins that somersault down the page. The poem that share’s the book’s title, “In Praise of Falling,” is one example.
God bless the sound of truck tires
rolling over black walnuts
that pop—half puncture, half
percussion—downbeat to the song
of falling leaves. And yes, bless that
inedible nut, the green globe turning…
Other poems use the form to underscore the back and forth, push and pull of the poet’s
somersaulting thoughts. The poem “Afterbirth” is a rumination on parenting.
When did want become
give? Two babies
birthed through this body
took all the furniture
with them, the knickknacks,
even the tulip-patterned
flatware of my childhood’s
kitchen table. Parenting
is like cutting your heart
out of your body
and letting it walk around
on its own, my friend quipped.
And what is this body
but afterbirth? The opalescent
cord, earth-scented placenta
buried under a willow
Like this poem, most of Dumesnil’s poetry tumbles back to safety, harmony and hope. A few don’t, like the poem “The Amnesiac, Seventh Grade.” Written in couplets that allude to at least one incident of violence at the hands of her father, Dumesnil builds tension but never allows the reader to fully see or feel the pain of this experience. She writes nineteen couplets about small sense memories of the seventh grade before she reveals: “inside that house is the echo of her/body thrown against the wall, the hollow/thunk of her bones as they hit the floor,/thumbprint bruises worked into her arms.” The poet implicates the father in the next stanza: “all she hears is her dad’s key/sliding into the lock, the slap of the bolt” then quickly changes focus in the last verse: “sounds change, all pictures fade to gray.” Dumesnil moves next to “Chosen,” a narrative poem about desire and hope in the poet’s embrace of another woman. The father’s violence is never mentioned again. Instead, Dumesnil subsumes her experience within a quest for self-acceptance in a universe much larger than her personal concerns.
To me, the sensibility of In Praise of Falling feels rooted in San Francisco: it’s close-knit communities, like Bernal Heights; its celebration of lesbian sexuality; its foggy, sandy landscape; and its poetic elders, particularly poet Gary Snyder, whose life and writing are also profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism.
Introspection tempered by humility and gratitude, key qualities of Zen, characterize In Praise of Falling. This book is well worth reading for its quiet pleasures.