Circe by Nicelle Davis Review

Nicelle Davis

Lowbrow Press 2011
ISBN: 978-0982955345
Pages: 104
Reviewed by Kelli Allen

What happens to myth when it is given a modern literary treatment? Is the romance of the arcane lost when a coat of current vernacular and diction is thrust, thick and bold over narrative, the essence of which is in our collective consciousness? To read Nicelle’s Davis’s debut poetry collection, Circe, is to ask this question after absorbing the peculiar language of her poems. The collection takes its reader through seven “books,” each detailing a modern-day Circe’s reflection on herself and her real and imagined histories. Davis does not allow her Circe to function as goddess. Rather she strips Circe to a woman whose magic is irrevocably lost, and ultimately the longing for what has been taken guides every word of the collection.

How we metabolize our grief is the central theme of each of the books. We are shown how Circe, the Sirens, Penelope, and Odysseus each manipulate language to spell a recipe for surviving through passion experienced, coveted, dispelled, and stolen.

Book I serves as an extremely brief explanation of the impetus for retelling Circe’s story. The poet shows herself in this section alone, and remains apart from the narrative action throughout the remainder of the text. While Davis does not write “Once upon a time” in this first section, the sensation of beginning an old, warm, and dusty tale from childhood is apparent.

Book II offers the reader an opportunity to watch Circe as she examines not only her present circumstances, but also how her past entanglements have colored her self-perception. We meet Circe as she is beginning to understand her own shades of madness and is resigning herself to whatever truth may be visible within the strangeness. We agree to accompany the poet through memory and into Circe’s experience with the line: “Will we heal?” from “A Doctor Comes to Call on Circe.” The question echoes in every one of Davis’s poems, with proffered answers as bizarre and melancholy as the illustrations by Cheryl Gross, which follow each “book.” The one answer which resonates the solitary hopeful note in the poems comes through in “Visions of Return from the Crystal Ball of Circe’s Glass Eye:” “There was/ song. That much is true.”

There are moments in the poems where language falls a bit flat and images seem forced: “I drop my basket and bolt for home- crying/ like a baby’s bottle in a footless pig’s mouth.” There is risk of preciousness in tackling sorrow when the character of import has leapt from the Odyssey. Both “Love Letter for Circe” and “Lottery Tickets” feel almost gimmicky—as though the poet is stretching too far beyond myth toward cleverness unearned. The luminescent moment in Book II, which compensates for weaker pieces preceding it, is the lovely poem “Circe Swallows Her Glass Eye.” In these lines Davis delivers a self-reflexive assertion about narrative and recognition: “Setting is the lie; there is no physical ocean/ keeping others from finding me.” We are allowed to assume the pursuit is both for poet and Circe. Indeed, all fiction, all narrative, is merely truth wrapped in swirls of misinformation and false memory. Our duty is in the choosing of these illusionary truths.

Book III begins with the lovely epistolary “Dear Odysseus,” which is an aching, open portrayal of loneliness in the wake of a lover’s refusal to reciprocate desire. Circe’s longing is painfully naked and Davis casts her as deserving of empathy, despite her apparent leaning toward ugly bitterness. There is pleading in this poem, which gives us the first real taste of Circe’s peripheral humanity.

The longer poems in the collection speak with more authority than their brief, and often postscriptory, sisters. The narrative weave of the books is often frayed by the small poems peppered in and around the larger narrative threads. They fit oddly between Circe’s moments of inner dialogue. Perhaps this slightly schizophrenic ordering and presentation is intentional as a linguistic mirror for Circe’s path through her loose and swirling psyche.

The concrete, or “shape” poems, are affective as visual representation of certain quasi-universal actions within the construct of the original myth, but do not present the most interesting or engaging language. They feel, as many of the shorter poems, rather artfully contrived. “The Sad Siren” is the most intriguing of these shaped pieces as it is accompanied by charmingly grotesque drawings of the same name. The conversations between the sirens could have been condensed into a longer-form poem to avoid some of the “over-cooked” residue of the short pieces in this section.

Books IV, V, and VI offer the most stunning poems in the collection. When Davis writes elements of myth into her own more casual and modern mode of description, we are given little moments of wisdom that ring of magic otherwise missing from this retelling. In “The recipe for Sirens,” Davis offers a gorgeous meditation on man’s inherent narcissism: “If they beg for mercy-/ try to be patient-/ most can’t see you have already given them/ what they ask for.” Again, we see Davis at her self-reflexive best here. This is followed closely by “Uses for a Witch’s Eye- 1.a. Jaw Stoppers” wherein the notion of seeing is discussed as the gaze is turned toward self: “Tell yourself/ it’s just an eye- you have two- and vision/ happens regardless.” In book V “The Body Is Two Doors” serves as a mother’s lament. This is perhaps Davis’s most tender poem while also being her most emotionally violent. Along with “Sing into Empty until it Shines,” Circe is given a space through which to express the thorough evisceration of female grief. While the language in these poems sighs, the lines resist overt brutality and instead sing through a palette of regret. “Connecting Cords” is the only anaphora in the collection and it allows Circe’s “I” to receive immediate and unmasked attention.

The parallel worlds in which Circe experiences womanhood through, and as, Penelope are the most complex situations in the collection. In “Circe Wakes as Herself after Being Penelope” motherhood is examined from a long side-ways glace both within and without. Here, we see Circe as clearly falling further into delusion, while in the same instance expressing the most harrowing moments of clarity. Her longing is laid bare and the reader cannot help but look slightly away just as Circe must.

The postscript of the collection invites the reader to begin again, much as a traditional fairy tale story asserts that every ending is the natural loop of opportunity to return to the point of beginning. Davis asks us more than to simply re-read the text, though that is certainly a delightful option. Her assertion in closing the collection with such a brief and direct postscript is to push her reader into the realm of myth—that which instructs us most in myth and fairy story is the message between the layers of language and narrative. All good stories invite revisiting, and Circe is no exception.

Originally from Utah, Nicelle Davis now resides in Lancaster, California, with her son J.J. She has taught poetry at Youth for Positive Change, an organization that promotes success for youth in secondary schools, and with Volunteers
of America in their Homeless Youth Center. She currently teaches at Antelope Valley College. Her
poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Beloit Poetry Journal, ML Press,
The New York Quarterly, Offending Adam, PANK, SLAB Magazine, Two Review, and
others. Her book, Becoming Judas, is scheduled to be released from Red Hen Press
in 2013. You can read her e-chapbooks at Gold Wake Press and Whale Sound. She
runs a free online poetry workshop at The Bees’ Knees Blog and is an assistant
poetry editor for Connotation Press. She is currently working on four different
collections of poetry and on ways to channel her many interests into large
paper-mache yard ornaments. She is grateful for the time your eyes took to read
this bio.