Red Hen Press
71 Pages; Print, $15.95
When I first picked up my copy of What the Willow Said as It Fell, I didn’t quite know what to expect. The book’s plain white cover and minimalist presentation allowed me to just go in with an open mind and see where it took me, and I most certainly was not disappointed. This book-length poem covers a lot of ground and takes the reader on an uncomfortable journey. Meditating on ideas of pain, bodies, and bodies in pain, Scarpino forces the reader to confront harsh truths, which is exactly what poetry should do. And yet, Scarpino still finds room to incorporate some of the beauty of nature and trees, putting these two things together and seeing what their friction creates.
What the Willow Said as It Fell was a book that I couldn’t put down. After reading it in one sitting, I came back a few days later and read it again in another sitting. That’s good poetry.
As a book-length poem, the book has this ceaseless quality, as if the reader could pick it up and open to any page and just start reading. There is this dreamy, ethereal atmosphere to it that permeates the mood, and as Scarpino ruminates on pain, she incorporates found poetry into her writing that works with her. Snippets from medical journals, books, and her own medical records add this clinical, formal element to Scarpino’s lines. She often makes lists of various medical terminology—lists of chemicals; lists of medicines; lists of diseases. Scarpino makes good use of the vocabulary of cancer and the hospital. This contrasts with the mythical presentation of nature—specifically, willow and ash trees. Trees have this unconquerable purity to them, but like the human beings that Scarpino compares them to, trees are fleeting and vulnerable:
lightning, one long, loud crack.And ash collapsed, a splintering,
crown in orange flames,soot raining. Ozone hung in the air.
And our bodies rose,arms like wind through leaves,
hair like spring’s wild blossoming,our hearts’ growth rings, root-veins—
nerve trees, lymphatic tree—pulse of nerve to spinal cord to the brain.
In the meadow’s blackened opening,our bodies rose from ash, burning—
Scarpino constantly looks for the parallels between people and trees, seeing the beauty and transcendental purity of nature. And yet, the poet struggles to reconcile the cruelty of life, disease, and pain with these things, and it is in that friction that Scarpino crafts compelling poetry. Pain is this omnipresent theme that constantly returns, which mirrors the suffering of chronic pain. As Scarpino eloquently puts:
Pain changes us—
knife point warmed on the stove—
and everything we touch:
blood in the sink, skin raised—
Pain is an abstract concept to most, elusive to pin down, but Scarpino achieves this by focusing on the effects of pain. She looks to the ways pain changes us, the ways that pain hurts, more than just the physical.
The book makes excellent use of white space. The words are separated and broken up on the page, given room to breathe—time for the reality and gravity of what’s being said to sink it: pain is both simultaneously horrible and an unavoidable fact of life. This creates a feeling of weight as sometimes an entire page will be devoted to a single line, “Tell me, is pain the garden’s only plan?” Alternatively, an entire broken, jagged paragraph can spread out across the entire page, like page 59, which repeats the phrase “Pain begets pain” endlessly, filling the page with pain.
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Many of the lines are enjambed and ripped apart in different ways. Like the theme of chronic pain, the lines are often fragmented, broken, painfully spread out on the page or condensed into a tight space. The lines are elusive in this way, and make each page unlike the previous. Such care is put into the structure...