Joshua Kryah

The Reservoir

Donna Stonecipher
ISBN 0-8203-2463-9, 2002
University of Georgia Press, $16.95

In her first book of poems, The Reservoir, Donna Stonecipher records her own displacement as the survivor of a world that exists only in reflection. It is a world Stonecipher is “anxious to tell” her “version of,” but “must be careful how many times” she asks “to be rescued” from it. Fear of dissolution—the kind that presages self-disclosure—often results in the revelation that “you can talk for hours before you realize you won’t say it.” Drawing upon the image of the reservoir as a vessel of containment, Stonecipher attempts to record the seepage and evaporation of her world, as well as the function of memory to act as a catch basin for such loss. It is a trope that manages to both regulate the flow of memory and preserve the supply of images and impressions caught within its torrent.

Turning over various prose poem forms throughout the collection, Stonecipher recalls pieces of her past by supplying both an “alley for egress” and a “portal for return,” leaving the reader with a wash of prose in which specific images and sentiments gradually reveal themselves through repetition and insistence. Moved more by a compulsion to render a multifarious world than to rely on any single form, Stonecipher’s poems shroud themselves in mystery just as soon as they begin to emerge. They unite narrative with a subtle lyricism, and in the meantime lose the reader in their aural and visual—even typographic—labyrinths. As the reader’s eye moves from one prose block to the next, it is sometimes hindered by numbers, often interrupted by ellipses, and both confused and delighted by Stonecipher’s endstopped and enjambed lines. In “White Mouth,” the slipperiness of her form cedes to a slipperiness of content:

                  I had forgotten all about the star inside the apple, eating my way
through orchardsful in the intervening years, years marked by

                  Who does not judge each heart by halving it from the top instead
of scoring delicately around the girth? Still,

                  If I could fill myself with milk I’d be the old statue weathering in
the yard: evangelical, cicatrixed with white roses, the white of

                  My heart is as sad and wide as the side of a barn, the town drunk
said. Anyone can hit it, and quite frequently

                  But forgiveness is not in the purist’s white apothecary. Skin secretes,
a mouth like oil never dries, and desire does not stay inside the lines

Stonecipher’s range of diction, her mixture of complicated and simple syntax, and her shuttling between clarity and closure all add to the opaqueness of the poem. The reader is detained by the image of the star inside the apple, the memory of which is reached only after consuming “orchardsful in the intervening years.” There is a dredging of the past in order to extract its forgotten elements in these poems, although the deluge always continues: “a mouth like oil never dries, and desire does not stay inside the lines.” The past, no matter how scrupulous Stonecipher observes it, always seems to overflow its banks, just as the narrative of her life refuses to remain constellated.

Images of orientation govern most of these poems, as Stonecipher endeavors to navigate the terrain of her world: the transience of her life spent in places a disparate as Seattle, Tehran, and Prague (“Silver Spoon,” “The Scar”); the complexities of ambiguous relationships (“The Chase”); and her own obsession with telling the story (“The Reservoir”). An array of stars dot the physical and psychological landscape, intermittently broadening into patterns that encourage “both a truth-telling and a concealment.”

                  Once upon a time secrets were cheap, easily bought and
easily spent, moving angelically through the agency

                  of the mouth, until the day a secret swept up to the lips
that could not be told, capsizing as it would

                  everything, so the secret stayed inside, and rose in
value, until it sank and became

                  a lake, keeping its decorous hem, contained by law
more persuasive then the laws

                  of spilling over…

(“The Secret”)

Secrets refuse to yield to the law of “spilling over,” instead they remain contained “inside” their origin, the mouth, its speaker. Again and again a secret wells up, ready to be divulged, only to drown in its own liquid inutterance: “The letter that said ‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you’ or ‘For-/give me for what I am about to reveal’ had not yet come.” As readers, our curiosity does not slacken when these secrets refuse to come to fruition. Instead, we anticipate the disclosure of Stonecipher’s struggle articulating the past as one only half-told. In poems that seem to puddle upon the page, Stonecipher simultaneously distills and muddies the clarity with which she succumbs to the “aphrodisiac of the current,” the lull of the story itself.

Review of Granted, by Mary Szybist

Copyright ©2005 Electronic Poetry Review