A review of Engraft By Michele Seminara

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Michele Seminara
Island Press
Island Press Co-operative, 2016. ISBN: 978090977193572, Paperback, 72pp

There’s a lovely shiver of recognition when you come across new poetry that hits you instantly. Michele Seminara’s Engraft is one of those books for me. From the first poem, I felt I was in familiar territory, the work speaking to me in a visceral way. The landscape of Seminara’s poetry is often domestic – home life, motherhood, abusive relatives, relationships, aging, and illness, but there is also magical realism, shapeshifting, sublimated desire, and a range of literary influences that come through the found poems, centos, erasures and remixes. The poetry plays with metapoetic themes, with traditional rhyme schemes and rhythms, and are self-referential in a post-modern way.

The book is split into four distinct sections. These are simply titled as “Mammoth,” “Lover,” “Mother,” and “Snail,” and each section presents a slight change of direction. The poem in “Mammoth” that gives the section its name, refers to the 2013 unearthing of the carcass of an extinct female mammoth, and the suggestion that the blood would be used to clone and bring back the species. The poem not only takes the voice of the mammoth, but anthropomorphically infuses the voice with a dark, sensual female power, full of hidden beauty and danger:

My blood, dark as a fairy tale
Leached insidiously into the Siberian snow
And my flash flared red and fresh
enough to eat. (“Hoary”)

Other poems in this section take on the voice of a dog, of Kafka writing a letter to his younger sister Ottla (“The sentences literally crumble in my hands:/I see their insides and have to stop.”), a very old woman, Emily Dickinson, a bird of prey, and carrion. In each of these poems, there is a strong link and often a blurring between subject and object, and between the victim and aggressor. The poems are unsettling, but also oddly beautiful with structures that drive the reading forward: I/pray/to be a feast/of truth you will devour (“Pray”).

The second section, “Lover,” contains mostly love poems, though they aren’t exactly Hallmark. Love is often the site of pain and destruction. The title poem is in this section is a remix of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15. The result not only calls to mind the original sonnet – a poem about love, death, and the power of poetry, but also effectively returns the favour to Shakespeare, engrafting his own poem and thereby refreshing it:

So I’ll make war with time and as he takes you,
make love, and with my pen engraft you anew. (“Engraft”)

Shakepeare is like an echo that runs through all the poems in this section. Though not all of the poems are Shakepearean sonnets, they all have a ghost of the sonnet form, with sonnet-like sestets, iambic pentameter beats, and even a Petrachan sonnet in “My Sicilian.” Even the structurally loosest poems “The Lover” and “Masque” come across as deconstructed sonnets, with Elizabethan turns midway through, though both poems are found poems, with “Grand Mont” coming from Elizabeth Smart’s novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept” and “The Lover an erasure from Duras’ The Lover”.

The poems in the “Mother” section are the most domestic and raw. These are poems of motherhood but also of relationships, trauma, and of the way in which love and hate sometimes bisect. These poems are a freer structurally than in the previous section, and a little less referential and playful than others in the collection, but no less humorous at times, even if the humour is black. There’s a witty self-consciousness in many of these poems which undermines the intensity of their topics:

How is it that we came to be locked
in these bodies, lives ossifying
into rings of fat, rigidity and suffering?
That man was once a boy
light as a dandelion, the body
barely given thought.
Now it’s a trap, and death the escape.

The doctor says my oestrogen is low.
She prescribes hormones to alter
the cruelty of my vision. (“Zhuang Zhou Dreams in Pink”)

The final section, “Snail,” is, to my mind, the strongest part of the book. These poems, which are often worked through other poems, focus on aging, loss, and death, as well humanity’s all-too-obvious failings. As with all the poems in the collection, the work is lightened by humour, and by the way it plays its literary influences against the darkness of the subject matter. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Giant Snail” is the background influence for this section, and is reworked into a modern response: “What germ inside us inclines towards hate?” (“On Reading Bishop”).

Grief, fear, and loss are woven through these poems: Cancer, the loss of a mother, our own inevitable death: “so full of lasts,/quivering, on the brink” (“Everything’s”), but because a number of the poems are actually found poems, there’s a sense of rebirth through the pain that’s actually allows even the darkest of these poems to end on an affirmative note. An ongoing conversation between ‘real life’ and the poetic happens throughout this section as Seminara and poet Stuart Barnes remix one another’s work in a play between the work of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. The end result is an innovative series of collaborations that opens out the work to a range of logarithmic possibilities as the poems pull against one another. With such heavy subject matter, the result is surprisingly light:

They are a stand of bitter wisdom trees
eyes revolving inward like moons
beguiling faces smiling down upon us. (“Elders”)

Though Engraft is not a large book, Seminara’s poetry is expansive – each poem calling upon others and playing against its referents. This is a brave debut, full of as much mischief as pathos. The work explores the ‘engrafting’ of literary voices, and a layered complexity of the interaction between perception and the need to keep moving forward in time in spite of those events that push us back. This meshing of the everyday with the extraordinary creates poems that are dense without being difficult, and make for a very rewarding reading experience.