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A Heart Is Just Soil

At Night by Lisa Ciccarello
Black Ocean, 2015


Poet Lisa Ciccarello mentioned in a recent interview with The Cloudy House, (June 3, 2015) that she never exorcized the demons that inspired her Blood Pudding Press chapbook (At Night, the Dead), and she continued writing toward this subject on and off for two years. We see the fruits of this obsession in her first full-length collection, At Night. The reader is transported to a luscious wintery nightscape where the dead try to mingle with the living.

Ciccarello draws portraits of what happens at night. Her phrases are simple about what the dead do and how we, the living, respond. There is a character called “the girl.” The girl makes the bed, she makes it again. (This time it is something “more.”) She learns how to “knit a home.” Certain domestic items repeat throughout the book: salt, milk, tea, steam, soil, birds, and candles. The home is a cup of boiling water.

The dead are always trying to get in. The girl cuts windows out of boxes, but the dead have tallow and salt. The dead need chandeliers, they “need someone to smile at.” But when the dead smile, it just looks wrong. Ciccarello teeters on this creepy and beautiful cliff, and we willingly join her, hosting a picnic for the dead. There are no specifics regarding the dead: we all have our own ghosts that appear in this book—dead or living or maybe something in between.

She writes effectively from the “other’s” perspective:

Some dead: just the ghost of the dead.

All they want is to lie down with you—you lie down & they
lie in your body. They learn to clench their fingers in time with
yours, to stare at the ceiling & raise their chest & the sound
you make inside your mouth is like a heat inside theirs. They
are shaking with the sound of you. These dead have eyes like
the throats of bats & what they see is the volley of your voice.

Your own name—say it.

Ciccarello writes the character of the dead like she is their representative, understands their actions, yet she also reminds the reader to speak “your own name.” Exist in the world of the living, no matter how tedious, ward off the dark.

Several of Ciccarello’s word pictorials are remarkably haunting: sprinkling salt along window sills and door frames, the dead spelling out the word “soon” with laundry or with dirt, the dead trying to put fingers in mouths because they do not understand us and they want to.

There are no individual poem titles in At Night. It is one collection of mesmerizing tone and shadow from the dead to the living, to our relationships with others as well as our own psyche.

It is so easy to return to Ciccarello’s words again and again:

The reflection shakes on the surface; the dead

remember; yea & it is not enough:

the sun trembles.

As the tag line on the back of the book jacket states, “If you seek comfort, you will find none here.”


Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author of eight chapbooks and two full length poetry collections. Her chapbook Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or The Wrong Items is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017, and She Came Out From Under the Bed (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) is forthcoming from dancing girl press. Recent work can be seen at Lime Hawk and Inter/rupture.


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