Reviewed by Michael T. Young
Beyond the Moon’s White Claw
by Patty Dickson Pieczka.
Red Dragonfly Press
May 2020, 128 pages, ISBN: 978-1945063329
Winner of the David Martinson-Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press, Beyond the Moon’s White Claw is Patty Dickson Pieczka’s third collection of poetry. In an introduction to the collection, Pieczka says, it is “a poetic diary from true events and reflections of marriage and friendship, suicide, PTSD, divorce, war and death.” From this description, one might expect something narrative and yet what one encounters is more along the lines of allegorical poetry pushing occasionally toward surrealism. It is a collection that charts a symbolic journey through trauma and transformation, an alchemical effort to reimagine the wounded self toward its own healing.
The primary aesthetic pleasure of the collection is its music. It is rich with internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance. In fact, there are times it seems the diction is driven not by semantics as much as by sound logic. A dramatic example is an early poem in which the title serves as part of the opening line:
jumbled in a basket, sift
between my fingers like pearls,
milk teeth, bamboo beads, sleek
and snail-curved, snaggle-cragged
and jagged, varied as voices. (26)
Here it is almost a surfeit of sounds clogging the sentence. But there are far more subtle and beautiful examples. Such as:
Broom flower and plum root (Batik, 64)
I try to ignore
distortions of my shadow when the sun
recedes but listen as the song
of an unstrung violin lengthens,
bleeding toward night. (Antique Mirror, 49)
First, there is that buried rhyme in recedes/bleeding. But it’s the various forms of assonance and consonance that carry us along like a gentle wave: the “or” sound in ignore/distortions, the s sounds of distortions/sun/recedes/listen/song/unstrung, and then the n sounds in distortion/listen/unstrung/violin/lengthens to finally land on that last word “night.” There are many examples of this kind of gentle transport of music in the poems. And it is one of the primary pleasures in the collection. I admit, I can forgive poetry for nearly anything if the music provides enough pleasure. I don’t even need to understand it. But we need to return to that introduction.
As I’ve already mentioned, the introduction speaks of the collection as a diary of true events, which sets us up to expect something with narrative clarity. And we are given the framework of a narrative: the meeting of a future husband (Victor), the early romance, the PTSD of surviving a war that gradually erodes the marriage, friendships and deaths. But it is only a skeleton. What is hung upon that skeleton is not the flesh of the narrative but rather a constantly shifting set of images: shadows, snakes, stars, clouds, moons, dreams, and “fractured light.” Not an exhaustive list but there are few poems in the collection that don’t have one of these elements in it. At its worst, this can make the collection feel monochromatic. At its best, it provides subtle signposts for tracing and exploring the trauma resulting from war and failed marriage and the slow struggle toward healing. So in an early poem we read
I drag my emptiness behind me.
It clatters along the stones
like a metal bucket.(The Well, 32)
But toward the end of the third section on the aftermath of the marriage and the ex-husband’s death, we read
His memory trails behind me
like a sheer scarf. (Into the Night, 80)
This movement from empty weight to a light memory charts a progress of the soul. This progress, of course, is not without emotional reconning. While it can feel emotionally disconnected to follow this narrative in a play of symbols, there are poignant moments. In what is to me one of the most revealing and touching poems of the collection, “If I Could,” the speaker addresses the feelings of how they could have saved Victor, the ex-husband, concluding:
if I could cork his thirst to douse
his haunted dreams in rum,
maybe he’d still be breathing. (If I could, 72)
Perhaps what is most heartrending is the poem is cast in the present simple conditional mood until the last sentence throws it into the past, which cannot be changed. The speaker’s helplessness before the pain of the PTSD of her ex-husband is compounded and yet inevitably accepted by that painful turn. In the collection, the various symbols from here on begin reversing and resolving. This finally provides a stability from which the final 2 sections of the collection can evolve: one in which the poet writes to all those who suffer the traumas of war and then ending in a section of poems anchored in the present, in a life of a marriage to someone else.
In the final section, which Pieczka calls an “Epilogue, my present life,” one finds various symbols have become less obsessively present and when they surface, have now a renewed life. There is still struggle, but it is no longer full of the fracture and discord of the first 3 sections. So, for instance, the opening poem about Victor sets the tone of the majority of the book and speaks of “torn//sunlight,” “fractured light,” and how he “raises his axe, and cleaves/the sun.” This fracture of light and day is symptomatic of the pain throughout the collection until the final section. In it, we find in contrast,
Jonquils laugh through struggles like bits of sun
through leaves as our roots grow, wound into one. (Garden Sonnet, 118)
Where there was fracture there is now unity. There are still struggles but they are common struggles, shared efforts.
Beyond the Moon’s White Claw stands out for its unique approach to a life story, by handling its material not as plot and character but as transformational journey, as symbols in the soul’s battle with trauma and pain. While there may be shortcomings in the collection, ultimately it offers many aesthetic pleasures and is a welcome affirmation of life and love.
About the reviewer: Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was published by Terrapin Books. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint (Finishing Line Press), received the 2014 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award from the New England Poetry Club. His other collections include The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost (Poets Wear Prada), Transcriptions of Daylight (Rattapallax Press), and Because the Wind Has Questions (Somers Rocks Press). He received a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Chaffin Poetry Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous print and online journals including The Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Edison Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, The Potomac Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. His work is also in the anthologies Phoenix Rising, Chance of a Ghost, In the Black/In the Red, and Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. He lives with his wife and children in Jersey City, New Jersey.