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Winter 2017 — Book Review by Charles Rammelkamp
"Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes"

Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes
by Cheryl Dumensil
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016
$ 15.95, 104 pages
ISBN: 978-0822964315

In his famous "Ode on Melancholy," John Keats enjoins the reader to "glut thy sorrow on a morning rose" when sadness is about to overwhelm you. The morning rose's fragile bloom dies so quickly, and happiness is so fleeting, but this is where it's found, in the odd bits of nature and life that pass us by. Further on Keats expands this thought:

     She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;
     And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
     Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
     Turning to poison while the bee–mouth sips:
     Ay, in the very temple of Delight
     'Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine...

Cheryl Dumesnil's poetry makes me think of this. Not only does her work abound in images and scenes from nature, images as emblematic as they are realistic, but it has this sense of negative capability wherein the seed of tragedy is always at the heart of the things we value and cherish, or, as Dumesnil puts it in "Breaking the Broken Things," when considering the implicit ache at the core of tenderness:

                         Oh childhood,
     you asshole, you unconscionable purveyor of loss...

Indeed, the first of five sections into which the collection is divided is called "Good Morning Heartache," with a poem by the same name, after the Billie Holiday song. The poet is just waking up.

     The bastard sun rises again, dissolving
     the only good dream I've had all year.

And later in the poem:

     Across town, my friend can't lift her head
     off her pillow, the chemo eating her

     platelets and maybe the tumor, while
     in my kitchen, the coffee timer clicks on...

Such an everyday moment but already full of the implicit contradictions that make up a life, the good and the bad all jumbled together in the fundamental, the obvious.

Or again, as she writes in "The Acrobats of Pittsburgh," having left her family to travel across the country:

     Why does anyone ever leave anyone they love?

Time is so fleeting, why ever separate yourself from those that make you happiest? The narrator is on the phone talking to her children three thousand miles away. It's a rather lengthy, complex poem which also includes allusions to an accident that has hospitalized her father, likewise back home in California, and a flock of Pittsburgh pigeons, constantly disrupted but oh so resilient, graceful. The poem begins:

     A medevac helicopter descends diagonally
     across my hotel window, all blue metal

     and yellow warning lights, scaring off
     the hospital roof an explosion of pigeons

     who scatter like shrapnel then regroup
     in the air as one body flying.

And it ends some seventy–odd lines later:

     On the street, an ambulance siren fires off
     like a starting gun, and those birds, they're at it

     again, trapeze artists launching off platforms,
     swinging arcs only nature could design.

The aching beauty in the evanescent is so succinctly captured in "Notes to Myself on the Morning after His Birth," when, noting various aspects of the newborn, she writes "you will / never get that back. Nor will it ever // leave you." Ah, that asshole life, that unconscionable purveyor of loss, is up to its old tricks again.

And that's at the core of these poems, really, the quotidian disasters — divorce, illness, common as mud — and yet the resilience, the impulse to regroup, move forward, persist, endure. What's so lovely about Dumesnil's poetry is not just the inventiveness with language, the vivid images, but a kind of "attitude" that suffuses the work, partaking in a kind of wisdom, captured so concisely in her epigraph from Lao Tzu: "Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?" Dumesnil is patient indeed and sees right to the bottom of the pond.

Some of Dumesnil's poems indeed have a subtle, good–natured humor in their wry observation of the fleeting details of life, the moments that slip past before we can hold onto them long. Some examples are the charming "Tampons: A Memoir," "Love Song for the Drag Queen at Little Orphan Andy's" (though this one does involve heartbreak), "Ode to Pink Floyd," "On Air Guitar, Lip Gloss, and Flat Irons," and the touching poem about her son entitled, "Melodrama of the Suburban Kindergartener," chronicling that moment when the brave little tyke, like a fledgling leaving the nest, walks across the "flat acre of asphalt, to his classroom," all by himself, "molasses pace and sobbing." Dumensil continues: "This is where // survival begins: that boy finally crossing / his threshold, this mom letting him go."

As John Keats might advise, "No, no, go not to Lethe ..." but glut thy sorrow on a small boy crossing the asphalt into the rest of his life.


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