Thursday, March 24, 2016

An Appreciation of ANGLES OF DEPARTURE by Marcene Gandolfo

“I keep a row of old coats in my back closet. I can’t say why. I haven’t worn them in years. Maybe someday in an unexpected rain I can offer them to a lost traveler, though a lost traveler has yet to knock on my door.”

These prose lines from the poem “Kept” are indicative of the world found in Angles of Departure, Marcene Gandolfo’s beautiful debut collection (Cincinnati: Cherry Grove Collections, 2014).

I have been reading a lot of electronic versions of poetry collections lately, but Gandolfo’s was one I could hold in the hand. This was a special pleasure because of the nature of these poems—close and contemplative and rooted in home. I dog-eared several favorites. I underlined lines. There are arrows and stars.

Gandolfo writes poems that approach pain—familiar sorts of it, easy to recognize and palpable in memory. I think the ache is keener because her poems happen in rooms that, when I look up from the cracked spine of my book, seem indistinguishable from my own.

I like the poem “Why the Kiss Good-bye,” which shows the speaker leaving a beloved house for the last time, keys in hand to be turned over to new owners outside, but first spending a few moments seeing and touching those flaws she knows exactly where to find:

Don’t ask why I wanted
to walk into the empty,
feel my feet creak against
the hardwood floors.
Why I leaned against
bare lemonade walls
and listened to the kitchen
faucet drip. Don’t ask
why I cruised the hallway
like when I was six.
Why one last stare
at the breaking fence
outside the bedroom window.
Why clip a piece of thread
from the withering drape.
Why one last smell of yellow
linen closet. Why one more
thumbprint against a crack
in the bathroom mirror.

That’s a longish snippet, but I offer it because of that slow tour through memory and the suggestive quality of it—how it is sepia-toned and aching, and sometimes there is no clear sense why. The twinge of these lines didn’t leave me through the book.
On other occasions, though, Gandolfo is frank about the source of pain, like that of a stillborn child whose loss never stops hurting. Writes Gandolfo in “Hold,”

If you stare at anything long enough, you will see its face. See the profile in the door before you. See its features take shape in the grain.

I like Gandolfo’s work best when the pain it records comes from an unexpected source, but one that shows the wisdom of the poet, who does not overlook it. The title poem is such an example:

I believed even the least
light could flood the darkness.
Once a stream of fireflies
led me off a broken
highway. I believed
in the map’s veracity,
destination’s promise,
the window’s candle
whispering me home.

It’s nearly impossible to see past that black scrim; as Gandolfo writes,

Tonight we enter
the blackening desert.
Our headlights are useless
against this thick
shadow ache. It’s too late
to turn back.

I’ve driven that road. Sometimes a book of poetry can transport us, and Angles of Departure seems to bring me back to this precise place. I know the feel of it, and while it’s not always a comfortable place to be, it’s gratifying to have a wise guide.

The lesson to the poet-reviewer: Normal life contains both gravitas and grace. My experience is enough for poetry.

Marcene Gandolfo’s debut book, Angles of Departure (Cherry Grove Collections, 2014), won Foreword Reviews’ Silver Book of the Year Award in Poetry. Her poems have been published widely in literary journals, including Poet Lore, Bellingham Review, Bayou, DMQ Review, and Paterson Literary Review. She has taught writing and literature at several northern California colleges and universities.

An Interview with Marcene Gandolfo:

1.     What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
I wanted to be a singer. I’ve always loved music, and in high school, played guitar and sang with a folk group. But in college, I fell in love with the sound of words and the music inherent in language itself.

2.     What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
I can’t think of a particular word. But one expression, “I am bare feet on weeds,” defines the collection for me. These poems emerged from my reflections and meditations on grief. I recognize that I’m no expert on surviving grief; many have endured losses far more cutting than mine. But I did learn that grief strips us of our protective garments. We walk nakedly through a wild garden, where each step is unpredictable, even ominous. And we may stumble at times, but for the most part, we remain upright, move forward. We survive.

3.     Describe your worst poetic habit.
I’m not a poet who writes every day at a certain time. I wish I were … I can go days, weeks, even months without writing a poem, and sometimes I think, that’s it. Poetry has left me. But if I’m patient, I realize the poetry has been there all along; I just became too distracted or preoccupied to listen.

4.     It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.
An anthology exploring women and ritual. While traditional religious ritual could be a part of this, I’m more interested in the domestic. Because women, in most traditions, have been the primary caretakers of the family and home, these rituals, often passed from mother to daughter, shaped how the community embraced birth, death and major life events in between. These women were the first midwives. They were, most often, those who practiced end-of-life care. Even if these rituals are no longer formally practiced, they still influence cultures, communities, and families today. And I’m interested in how we can connect language to ritual.

5.     It’s your poetic obituary! Sum up your writing life with an essential (past-tense) statement about your poetry.
Marcene Gandolfo was a poet who loved words and tried her best to help them sing to each other.

Would you like to have your book considered for an Appreciation feature? It is eligible if it is no more than two years old or, better yet, forthcoming. You may send finished books or advanced reader copies to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804. You may query at

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