Whirlwind @ Lesbos by Risa Denenberg (Headmistress Press, 2016)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
After a long hiatus, I’ve returned to our Local Forecast series on writers of the Pacific Northwest with a book that, while written by a local, is remarkably worldly. Whirlwind @ Lesbos, the latest collection by Seattlite Risa Denenberg, is aptly named – the poems in this collection pull from the deepest corners of the poet’s memory and are juxtaposed together to create a sensual, painful epic where a lover is lost at the same moment, or perhaps even before, she is found, and ghosts churn, only occasionally showing their faces.
The strongest, and my favorite of Denenberg’s pieces, is the title poem, which appears at the beginning of the collection. The origin of the word stanza is in the Italian word for room, and that has never been more clear for me than in this poem – the narrator appears in a series of rooms that span continents, centuries, where two lovers are entwined and departing:
“In winter, we rented a small cottage
in Copenhagen where winds blew
snow over our bed…
We undressed each other
maidens in the fifth century…
… I missed the cab to the airport
slept right through the alarm
one morning in Cairo…
The baggage was clearly marked
but reached Paris by error.
I’m in New York
awaiting your email.” (2)
I was drawn to the eternal nature of this poem, and its comfort with dozens of real and imagined locations, which finally comes to a close in the contemporary world, with an email in New York that may never arrive. There’s a vulnerability in Denenberg’s poems that I admire, which appears here as a plea that builds in each stanza. This book, in fact, is full of pleas – for lovers to return, for friends to rise from the dead, for youth and for death and for comfort. These pleas are tempered, though, by an independence that wavers between satisfaction and loneliness; in “About the body and what it needs” Denenberg writes:
“I am no more alone than Emily Dickinson.
There is no idiom for the seasonal way I sail
into myself. The clouds are blue today.” (24)
Though a number of pieces in this collection read as standard love-and-love-lost poems, there are strong lines which carry the book more toward the realm of memory and loss and the heaviness that can come with aging. The moments I loved most in Whirlwind @ Lesbos were the ones which in which Denenberg gathered disjointed memories into a bouquet and presented them without pomp or explanation. There is a beauty to this, to the picking and presenting of a life as a series of moments that are connected only by the one remembering. The narrative that is crafted by this kind of presentation is as messy and as beautifully complicated as the life itself.
This is a wild collection, which is both vulnerable and duplicitous, sharp-edged and soft. It is a contemporary book that stretches back into the memory of love when it was more dangerous and tinged with loss. It feels often like the speaker of these poems has herself by the throat – for this reason, among others, it is satisfying to read.