Lisa Ciccarello - Vulnerable in the darkness as the dead watch behind salt-lined windows, we are led to explore a world of simple objects through a complex fog of cruelty and longing, strength and feebleness, folklore and familial traditions.
Lisa Ciccarello, At Night, Black Ocean, 2015.
Told in an age we can't quite put our finger on, the poems in Lisa Ciccarello's debut collection twist up from tales of witchcraft and the punishing morals of the Newgate Calendar. Vulnerable in the darkness as the dead watch behind salt-lined windows, we are led to explore a world of simple objects through a complex fog of cruelty and longing, strength and feebleness, folklore and familial traditions. Violence, love, death, jealousy, sex, and shadows fill the pages of AT NIGHT. If you seek comfort, you will find none here.
Incantatory, ruthless, and seductive, the poems in Ciccarello's debut roam a vast and timeless dark. More than a time of day, night represents the environment, mood, and the aesthetic and emotional qualities around which each poem coalesces. Beginning with action spun from intimacy and violence, where "I show you the back of my neck & you spit in your hand," Ciccarello deals in clear, forceful declarations that turn vulnerable and mysterious as they accrue. Duplicity and concealment govern the transactions both between people and within them: "I got an eye that speaks its mind but a body that does what it's told." This variance extends to the nature of description in the poems—which often outline a single thing, be it the moon, a house, a crime, an experience of desire, or nighttime itself—such that description has not pinned its object but made it multiple and shape-shifting. Even darkness, abiding and total throughout the book, takes on endlessly varied sounds, whether "like being underwater" or "the warble & the scrape of feather on bark" or "the sound of a man talking low, of a shoe going on, the sound of a heel in the street." From traditions of the folkloric and the lyric, Ciccarello offers a strange and commanding poetry of atmosphere. - Publishers Weekly
My tumultuous affair with poetry began in high school (where it does for most melodramatic folk) when I first stumbled upon the confessional, suicidal poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Admittedly, it was the fact that they had both caused their own ends that drew me to their work, but over time, these tragedies faded into the background, allowing their visceral, beautiful/grotesque & firercely raw poems to burn inside me. I wanted to be one of these women; I was already haunted by death in the romantic way young, sensitive people are often inflicted with. I wanted to write a small thing that took up barely a full page but that could sear a reader by the images conjured, by the uncanny use of normal words. I didn't succeed at poetry, but I wrote my undergrad thesis on Anne's work the same year I tattooed her initials inside my 'writing' wrist. I felt her ghost would linger if I gave my skin the power of her name.
Anne's book over time has become a sacred text to me as a writer. I always turn to her poems when in despair. My reading tastes, like everyone's have changed over time and after reading experimental garbage as well as being introduced to writers I still read such as Gary Lutz & Brian Evenson in graduate school, poetry fell from my reading habits. I returned to poetry this year after I attended AWP for the first time since it seemingly magically coincided with one of my trips out here to the Mid-West. I had known about Black Ocean Books vaguely as I had already owned a book by poet Zachary Schomburg, so I was happy when I stumbled upon their booth in a vast sea of presses I knew nothing about.
Admittedly, when I'm 'cold' searching for a book in a store, I'm often drawn to their covers unless looking for something specific. Lisa's cover art drew me instantly, 'At Night' has a strange symbol akin to a voodoo veve, which are beautifully drawn symbols that are sacred to the voodoo religion and are used in ritual as representations of the loa, or the spirits that are the intermediaries between realms. These symbols, when used in ritual, act as astral beacons, drawing these spirits down to where the symbol is being used. Though I don't know much about voodoo, several trips to New Orleans have taught me a little about these symbols, as well as a deep respect for them....(or perhaps, in not using them. Many people get these designs tattooed on them because they are indeed intricate and beautiful (yikes) )
I digress. The symbol on Lisa's book is not a reve, and only vaguely resembles one, as it also vaguely resembles other magical and old symbols. The book itself has a butter soft cover that strangely makes it feel almost made of baby skin, and the back cover reads ' If you seek comfort, you will find none here.' I was immediately sold. This had my name written all over it before I even flipped the cover open. As the ether would have it, Lisa happened to be standing nearby and when I held her book in my hands, the kind folks manning the booth suggested I say hi. Ordinarily I shy away from unsolicited conversation, especially with other writers. I even had a giant pair of head phones on as I navigated the book fair. But meeting Lisa felt like meeting someone I already knew in the way that kindred ilk sometimes recognize one another, and I asked for her to sign the book, which she did so thusly ' I hope it makes you the right kind of miserable.'
With that I fell completely under the spell of the book and have carried its thin body tucked inside my journal with me nearly everywhere.
Because I love this book so much, I wanted other people to read it to, especially since I feel people often don't seek out poetry or think they will 'understand it.' Because I love this book so much, I feel hesitant to write about it (hence my tardiness.) This may be why I'm continuing to digress, so here goes:
Here are some ideas that snared me:
* Immediately when flipping through or beginning to read the book, you'll notice none of the works are titled. In this way, it seems that all the poems are titled with the collective title 'At Night.' This decision may have limited Lisa when she was writing the book, but perhaps that drove the linked 'narrative' together so successfully. Although billed as poetry and often structured thusly ( despite the one liners from time to time), these writings feel more to me like secret conversations or confessions I'm not supposed to be privy to but am. Bearing witness to strangeness or mystery always makes me feel transcendent as a reader. It elevates the experience for me. I feel a bit haunted, in a similar way that Sleep No More makes me feel; an experience where I feel I'm in a place 'out of time', where I am a ghost in the company of other ghosts who cannot see me. We know the other is there, but there is no direct contact.
* Much like how the symbol on the cover suggests magic, so does the way these poems feel in the mouth when my eye moves over them. When reading them, their repetitions make me feel like I am invoking something beyond the page or preparing ingredients for a spell of protection or violence. This protection feels precarious however, the spirits looming within the pages are very real and present. Salt holds them at bay. Or tries to anyway.
* In the afterward, Lisa mentions how some of the "poems are inspired by and borrow lines from "The Newgate Calendar," a publication which gave " a full and satisfactory Account of the Crimes, Behaviors, Discourses in Prison and last Words" of criminals executed at Tyburn and Newgate Prison from the mid-sixteenth to mid-nineteenth century." I don't think this book needed this, I feel it stands alone perfectly, but when something like this is added to a text successfully, it makes my heart a swarm. These poems carry Lisa's voice as the creator, the voice of the 'imagined dead' as well as the truly dead, their words woven through her own seamlessly. The voices of the past echo into the future, into the book that sits in your hand.
* Perhaps what I was drawn most to is how important the body is in these works. Black eyes are constantly referenced, fingers in mouths, strands of hair, a binding of the body, a burning of the body, intrusions of the female body. If death has already come for these narrators, I don't imagine it was an easy leaving. Death by fire is hinted at quite often, which immediately makes me think of witch burnings. This subtly plays out like an unseen thread of anxiety stitched in the background.
* Objects are often reassigned. The moon is all manner of things, a splinter, an axe, a shovel a tooth. Knives are pearls. The violence is both tender and not. It is asked for, and it is not. There is a lack of blood, instead there is salt and soil, death by curse. The longest poem in the book was one of my favorite, a tale of a murderous wife who seeks revenge on the favored wife. This proximity of intimacy and violence interests me, a kind of push and pull between Eros and Thanatos.
There is more to say and hopefully there will be some discussion elsewhere. In closing, as much as this is a book of poems, it also feels like the recordings of a medium from another time. Lisa seems to be a conduit of a kind, channeling the night and its inhabitants into the constraints of a small book. I hope my thoughts will make you read it. - bloodmilk
“You lock the door. You lock the window. You dream of the dead.”
Most of us fear the dead. We fear their reach from beyond, their spectral presence in the dark, looming over us while we sleep, the awful things they might do. After reading Lisa Ciccarello’s prize winning chapbook, At night, the dead, published by Blood Pudding Press, it becomes clear that, though the dead are most certainly here, they are not here to do us harm. Rather, they love us, “the dead whose love is just a little series of letters.” They would like to be remembered, and maybe to have a voice.
“We are supposed to house the dead in our mouths, but we let them stay in our throats when we sing.”
The dead, it seems, seek a voice. In the dual role of poet and medium, Ciccarello chooses not only to house the dead in her mouth, but to sing:
“I am the dead I am the dead
I am the dead. The song I know.”
The mouth is the entryway, the tunnel through which the dead find their voice. Ciccarello’s haunting lyrics–surreal, pensive, often mysterious– linger in our psyche, long after they have provided the release the dead are seeking.Just as mortals, having seen a ghost, will question their own vision, so readers of At night, the dead may question what is real and what is Ciccarello’s fantastic imagination. “The dead put their fingers in your mouth,” the narrator asserts. Despite the next line, “You are dreaming,” you will soon question whether you, the reader, are awake or asleep, whether there are fingers in your mouth or not. Ciccarello’s stream of consciousness prose poems lull you into a sort of waking sleep-walk. In time, we (readers) take on a spectral form, hovering over each poem, studying it as the dead study the living when “you are asleep & inside the dream the dead rise up & their bodies are gone but their love has a form & they come to love you but it isn’t a dream…”
Like the dead, we become ghosts, floating through each piece, accepting it’s improbability for ethereal truth.
“I want to keep telling you about the dead,” the narrator says. “They write the same word over and over again.” Ciccarello does not write the same word over and over again, though there is a ghostly echo to the repeating clues she gives us in each of these sixteen poems.
Indeed, taken as a whole, the collection is a tightly woven tapestry of encounters with the dead, stitched together by recurring threads: salt on widow sills, luminous coins, burned paper, house and home. Comprised mostly of prose poems, each piece links almost imperceptibly to the next, most often through these cleverly repeated images.
Coupled with Ciccarello’s skill at crafting poems that read like small prayers or incantations, such repetition serves not to keep the dead at bay, but to welcome them, honor and invite them into “the house they remember” and give them “Everything they ever wanted: the window view, soap that floats, someone pressing down hard. Lips made out of paper. A smile that shines (just a flame at his mouth & so what).”
“We want to remember what was so close to our faces,” the narrator tells us. Too, “the dead/ remember;/ yea & it is not enough.” As Ciccarello’s haunting narrative continues in its melodic refrain, such surreal reasoning begins to make sense. “Our home is full of beautiful boy & come on girl.” The dead “have a home in the ground, but they forget.” Is it possible the dead are us? You and I, questing readers?
Without doubt, the dead are a metaphor for something. Just what is elusive, so we must continue to read and look for clues. In providing such mysterious little gems, Ciccarello—poet, medium, mouth-piece for the dead–does not disappoint. The sheer lyricism of her language can make a clue out of a seemingly irrelevant detail. Take for instance, this gorgeous morsel of truth: “Here is how I control my heart: I string each thought sparkling behind the next. In the patient necklace each will be touched.”
Overall, At night, the dead is a haunting collection, though not in the traditional sense of ghosts and fear. Instead, it is a series of surreal linked vignettes, brief but memorable encounters with the elusive dead (who may or may not be you and I), ferrying a message that may or may not come clear as the final poem exhales its last syllable.
Do not be surprised, when, after you have finished that last poem, you find yourself going about your own days and nights trying to discover your own dead and what they are asking for. Do not be afraid “when the salt is gone the dead touch your mouth.” - Jill Crammond Wickham
I imagine Lisa Ciccarello a sort of Nick Cave from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, walking up to the microphone: I’m not going to tell them about the dead. I’m not going to tell them about the dead.
“I want to keep telling you about the dead.”
Ciccarello read in Seattle in August, a sufficiently special occasion to warrant me leaving my apartment, and I recreate her voice in my head as I turn the pages. In the back bar of art gallery and event space Vermillion, Ciccarello’s voice was soft with intention. Hers is the best reading of the night. Hers is the best reading I have ever been to. A book of spells is good, but a spell said aloud is magic. When you read At Night, whisper it out the window. Intone it down a narrow hall. Chant it to the sheets, the curtains, whatever billows. It is an incredible book.
Excerpt from At Night:
You lock the door. You lock the window. You dream of the dead. You salt the sills from the inside. You are going to dream. You check the window. You burn a piece of paper. You burn a piece of hair. You check the door. You put a root beneath your pillow. You put the candle out. You bite the root before you put it beneath your pillow. You dream of the dead. You keep a candle burning. You bite the root. The dead put their fingers in your mouth. You are dreaming. You draw the dead & burn the paper. The dead have no doors. They have no salt. Each one takes a grain of salt. There are more dead than salt. You bolt the door. You are dreaming. When the salt is gone the dead touch your mouth. When the salt is gone you buy more salt. When the salt is gone the root does nothing. The salt does nothing.
Ciccarello’s first full-length poetry collection, At Night had been on my to-read list since its debut this past April. From the runic cover hinting at secrets within to Ciccarello’s twitter handle and my own obsession with salt, I knew it was only a matter of time, and in August the book found me by surfacing as one of two selections for the Blood Milk Book Club. Blood Milk is a renowned independent jewelry line I have long adored, hand-forged by a woman with a background in literature and an aesthetic to die for. Seeing two of my loves – poetry & talismans – paired thusly was a unique sort of joy. Please, please, more cross-craft collaborations and promotions!
My own background is in linguistics, which also lends itself to a heightened appreciation of Ciccarello’s work. Many of her poems read like prose – if prose were poured into an alembic and distilled into its most powerful essence. Her syntax is frequently atypical but never jarring – “Even & inside; against cry against bite down. What was not tender.” Her sentences hum with a rolling velocity – “The bowls are the color of bone & the bone is shaped like an egg. To make the bowl you must break the shell. / My mouth is a bowl: shell & yolk. I know the difference between full & filled” – and are punctuated with a deft hand, each period deliberately inviting a pause, each “and” instead an ampersand rushing the reader onward.
At Night is a pleasure to read, and re-read. The form and content are inseparable and so doubly powerful. Repetition of words and themes puts each poem hand in hand with the next: night, moon, mirror, black. The setting is unknown, the century irrelevant. And yet… is the setting our house? Is the century our century? It’s a potent, dark little maelstrom of a book, fit for sages and fools, acolytes and heretics, the living and the dead. And though poetry is so often enjoyed only by editors of journals or those who are poets themselves, At Night can and should ensnare anyone who picks it up. Reader, beware. - Sonya Vatomsky
Synopsis: The poems concern themselves with what happens at night.
What do you think makes your book (or any book) a “project book”?
I think there are many ways to approach the “project” aspect of a project book, but as far as my book goes, the poems adhere to very clear guidelines — they were all titled “At night,” the action in them takes place at night & I tried very hard not to give them an easily definable location or time — which makes their origins a little more considered.
Why this subject (or constraint)?
I love the danger & intimacy & imagination inherent in darkness. At first it started out as a kind of mini challenge (of the sort I give myself often) — just write about things that happen at night! — but I could see that I had plenty of interest in the possibilities there & kept on writing. As far as the timeless/placeless constraint, that tends to be a relatively consistent personal preference, in that I’d rather not mention things that weren’t around in, say, 1880. I like to leave those parts undefined because I don’t think they’re essential to what’s going on in the poems.
How important was it for you that each poem could “stand on its own” or that the poems should rely on other poems in the book, or on the premise of the project itself, to succeed? What challenges did this present for you when writing single poems or structuring the book overall?
It was very important to me that the majority of the poems would stand alone. I don’t like to make something that feels inherently incomplete. I think they can be better when read in groups, in that they tell a more complete story or the fear & desire in the individual poems congeals into something even more compelling. I like to think that the pieces on their own aren’t fragments so much as facets that reveal a fuller picture when connected & acquire power through accumulation & repetition. As I wrote, certain objects or themes would recur & those tied the book together even more tightly, but it was challenging to arrange them in such a way that they spoke to each other without clustering together too heavily or seeming to cover the same ground.
Did you fully immerse yourself in writing this project book, or did you allow yourself to work on other things?
I don’t think it’s possible to fully immerse myself in one thing at a time, at least not for long stretches. I can get really caught up in something for a short burst, but I find it’s better for me to have a few things to work on at any given time, so that all my creative effort doesn’t fall on one project (because that might make it seem like a burden, which I never want to feel towards anything I’m working on). While I was writing the poems that would become this book, I worked on plenty of other writing projects, even some collaborative ones, because I think that any time you’re doing creative work, you’re doing the right work.
Have you abandoned other project attempts? How did you know it was time to let go? What happens to project poems that never amass a full-length book?
I have a project that I care deeply about that has currently been back-burnered because I’m unsure whether it’s complete (& not long enough for a full length) or whether I’m going to have another round of energy for it or whether it will blend into the poems I’m writing now (because they share certain elements). It takes me a long time to know (I hadn’t written a new “At night” poem in almost 2 years before I was sure the project was done!) but I also don’t feel much pressure to let unfinished or undecided things go out into the world. If things absolutely stand alone as a complete project (or make a great grouping on the way to something larger) I love to send them out as chapbooks. Because often a project that’s really exciting for 10-25 pages wouldn’t necessarily be better (or even bearable) if it were allowed (or forced) to grow into a full length. & chapbooks are incredible for allowing smaller projects to still find their readers.
After completing a project, how did you transition into writing something new? What are you working on now? Another project?
At first I wasn’t even sure I was done. I just wasn’t writing as many of them & I found myself drifting to other themes & not re-entering the emotional space that had created those poems. I started a number of other projects, mostly small, some large. Some of them were “successful” in that they found publication as chapbooks, some of them became less interesting to me & were put aside, some of them grew & are still growing. It’s hard to explain exactly, but once I figured out that I didn’t need what the “At night” poems had previously offered me, I knew I was ready to close that project down & give my full attention to other things. Now that the book is finished, I’m working on another project! Projects, I should say. I can’t help myself — it’s just the way I work. Some of them will stay small & I hope they’ll be published as chapbooks, but one of them I hope will grow into my second book.
What advice can you offer other writers, particularly emerging writers or poetry students who may be using the project book as a guiding principle for their own work?
I firmly believe that as a writer you should never struggle. Things can be challenging or complex or daunting, but beneath all of that should be a feeling of compulsion, of energy, of desire. You should always want to be writing what you’re writing. Having a guiding idea or some basic rules for a poem (or series of poems) can be encouraging. I tend to work this way because when I sit down to write, I don’t have to fear the empty page or endless options. I have an idea of what I might be working on & I get to explore a space I’m already familiar with. I think that if you’re working with a project or constraint in mind, it should be like a ladder, helping you to reach more & more of what you wanted to say, rather than some kind of fence that you have to stay behind. If you find the project is more limiting than propelling, widen it or change it or abandon it all together. - www.thecloudyhouse.com/2015/06/03/lisa-ciccarello-on-at-night/
This is the suffering part
All night I dreamed it:
the dream was bad.I saw the holes open up in their faces
when they looked at me.
They said the curved hand is a sign
meant for something to go into.
They said in this village the dead
& I broke the sign
so people could not go there easily.
In this village the dead
murdered themselves & rose themselves
from where they lay.
They killed themselves & became themselves
& that was their revenge.
In this village the dead break the sign
so death can not find them again.
My daughter lies down on the ground.
I cannot stop her.
Look, she says,
pointing to her teeth,
the keeper of bells.
There is no tomorrow for this.
I saw the tower
like a steeple or a tusk
or a mast in calm waters
like a lightning rod like a lone tree
standing in a field.
My heart is turning to ashes.
It casts no shadow.
At night, by marriage:
Here is how I control my heart: I string each thought one behind the next, like beads.
I wear the answers I am waiting to give. The jewelry becomes heavy as soil.
My long blink is a scream & a yes. There are things I have to say, but they do not yet know the questions they must ask. & a blink is no word; if they misunderstand—
A heart is just soil. Ask anyone. A heartbeat is a blink. A long blink is a scream. A longer blink is sleep. All night I am screaming.
above the town moon a candle over a map lit, the streets,
animal pounding woods-shape stick cut for the center you smell
her so I trail you
from above fire where the blade meant-for I am going to have
her hear me
carnelian bead up inside she knows not & grow it there a sickness
have you out
to have you back
At night, the dark has a sound:
of light slipping back, of becoming absent before you; your hands are
too small to catch it-sound of the step & of the slip; though the way
it lands you can hold it, in its name, the whole of it in your
At night, the dead:
the dead are sitting up in their narrow huts. At night they moan & try
to uncross their legs. In the day they pretend they chose this
The dead have different problems-salt spills & they are blocked from
the water; the bell is found & someone pulls the string.
In the dark the string is dark thread & in the day, light. In the dark
a line of salt is a string & also in the light.
At night we salt the dead to staunch the moan. I hear the string. Stop
She’s the author of eight chapbooks: "I only thought of the farm" (forthcoming from DoubleCross Press, 2015) "Chief!" (Ink Press, 2014), Worth is the Wrong Word (Black Cake Records, 2014), & if I die, make me how you are (The New Megaphone, 2014), (the shore in parts) (Greying Ghost Press, 2013), Sometimes there are travails (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), At night (Scantily Clad Press, 2009), and At night, the dead (Blood Pudding Press, 2009).