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Gaining Something “From Nothing”

Poet Sara Pirkle Hughes reviews Anya Krugovoy Silver’s new collection From Nothing.

In her third collection of poetry, From Nothing, Macon, Georgia-based Mercer professor Anya Krugovoy Silver expands on the conversation she began in her first book, The Ninety-Third Name of God, and continued in her second book, I Watched You Disappear. As a woman living with inflammatory breast cancer, Silver writes poems that address illness and grief in an unflinchingly honest tone. However, the poems in From Nothing do not convey grim, depressing visions of life. Instead, Silver celebrates the lush, sublime experience of living in the present.

One could easily characterize this third collection as a book of contrasts, since nearly every poem explores the paradoxical nature of existence. For example, in “How to Unwant What the Body Has Wanted,” Silver enumerates the opposing ways a person handles grief:

Either wander long streets or lock your door.
Eventually, the plugged drain will release its rotting leaves.
Walk into sharp corners, enjoying the displacement of pain.
Maintain dignity. Tears are for lost cats and children who’ve stepped on nails.
Oh, what the hell. Go ahead and wail.

The poet’s use of second person pronouns in this poem allows the speaker to distance herself from the person attempting to “unwant” what the body has wanted, though the reader suspects the “you” in this poem may well be the speaker. In that way, the imperative tone (as well as Silver’s satisfying use of internal rhyme) gives way to self-soothing, which in turn provides comfort for the reader who sees herself mirrored in the speaker.

Silver has been categorized as a “Christian” poet due to her exploration of faith in her poetry, and in “After a Favorable Pet Scan,” the speaker praises God for the hope that accompanies encouraging test results. She exclaims, “I want to sing a new song!/ For every breath to be thankfulness,/ for everything I touch to shiver with life.” But in keeping with her theme of contrasts, later in the book, Silver presents speakers who “roll” their eyes “at the word fornicators” in “St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Lent” and who attend church “unclean” with dirty hair in “Ash Wednesday, Unshowered.” While many poems praise God, others challenge the religion that teaches its followers that the body is amoral, that desire and sexuality are sinful.

I would classify this as Silver’s “red” book, as the poems pulsate with vivid red imagery throughout. The color red dominates this collection, taking on its own powerful binary meaning. In most of the poems, the color signifies passion, confidence and energy, but other times, red represents rage, anguish and despair. Regardless, the red is unapologetic, as in “Summers in Vermont,” the first poem of section I, which begins, “There were evenings my sister and I/ rolled, clover-smudged, down hills,/ the sky a red horse pursued by a black.” This arresting, opening image of a red horse being pursued by a black one embodies a theme that Silver will return to again and again in the book—an image of life, lust and vitality being chased by death.

In “Just Red,” the speaker stands in a Walgreens, searching for “as pure a red” lipstick as she can find while her “father is ailing in a nursing home” and her “friend is dying in the hospital.” The poem’s gravitas balances on the stark contrast between pale images (the fluorescent lights of the store, the speaker’s blue veins in her wrist, her wan face) and her desire for “just red” (not “coral” or “rust” or “fawn”). Silver revisits this idea in “Red Never Lasts,” a poem that uses the extended metaphor of a bright red manicure as an emblem of youth. Because red nail polish reveals chipping more obviously than a neutral color, however, the speaker opts for a pale polish by the end, reinforcing the notion that the vibrancy of youth inevitably gives way to the neutral tones of middle age.

The influence of fairytales on Silver’s impression of the world is also readily apparent in this collection, as she uses familiar fairytale dichotomies to explore the painful awareness of one’s own mortality. The first line of “Snow White” drips with sarcasm, “How lucky to be pretty enough for a glass coffin,” and the poem continues to explore the irony of dying young; the unfairness of it, yes, but also the privilege when one dies young to never be old or useless or ugly.

Another poem that employs fairytale imagery is the sonnet-like “Luzerne.” The speaker remembers “the castle ramparts, café umbrellas/ open between showers, the apple cake, and Picassos” of this enchanting city, while acknowledging that at the time she was “tired” and she “wanted to stop walking and pretending to be happy.” Rather than portraying herself as the protagonist of this fairytale land, the speaker equates herself with Cinderella’s stepsister: “All that beauty, and yet I limped as though I’d cut/ off my own heel to fit another life’s slipper.” Here, the speaker feels the dual burdens of time encroaching on her life and the expectation to appear happy despite her fear and grief. However, the poem ends on a hopeful declaration about art: “There was poetry, offering itself like a pair of violet shoes.”

Ultimately, what the reader gains from reading From Nothing is exactly what the speaker in “Luzerne” gains when she recognizes what poetry has to offer. Life is chaotic, humans are contradictory. But poetry, and the poems in this stunning collection, offer some ordering to the madness, some respite from the inherent grief of the human condition.

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