Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Abigail Cloud: Sylph

Abigail Cloud’s first book of poetry, Sylph, was selected by Dana Levin as winner of the Lena-Miles Weaver Todd Poetry Prize. The poems in this skillfully wrought collection foreground the relationship between dance and lyric poetry. In poems that are imagistically and musically rich, Cloud considers the nature of love and desire—particularly desire’s attraction to that which is missing.

A crucial touchstone in the collection is the romantic ballet Giselle. The ballet, in two acts, tells the story of a young girl’s supernatural battle to save her beloved from the Wilis (vengeful female spirits who force men to dance to their death). Cloud populates her book’s pages with these sylphs—both spirits of air and female dancers. Figures from Giselle, like Myrtha and Albrecht, appear alongside Ginger Rogers. Their human voices swirl in counterpoint to those of Cloud’s many imagined “demons.”

Sylph’s spirits are not the sacred divinities one might expect. They resist categorization as good or evil, and inhabit the same world as we do: angels can go on benders and demons can suffer burn-out. These spirits hold sway over apparently narrow purviews, such as the “snapped key demon” and the ”lost wedding ring demon.“ But this insistence on the quotidian reveals the ways in which the divine infiltrates and possesses the minor pinpricks of daily life.

The woman’s dancing form, in which the body itself takes flight, manifests itself in the poems’ elegance of language and line. Cloud composes poems so sonically rich that their music allows the words to almost lift off the page. In “Broken Jar Demon,” for example, the hiss of sibilant and fricative consonants is punctured repeatedly by hard, plosive consonants:

Stop—a slurry of flashes,
fingers crisp with parsley
and the sudden absence,

a violent gap. How
the synapse connects,
a splinter of fear…

This music is not merely decorative, but is meaning-making. The poem has explored the trauma of sudden loss, and when we read in the final line that “the air blisters,” we are prepared via its music to believe the unadorned declaration that an insubstantial element can, and does, inflict such visceral pain.

As the book progresses, the number of “demons” diminishes. Juxtaposed against poems such as those that address Giselle’s supernatural Wilis and their queen, Myrtha, are poems about mental illness. In “Water at the Lunatic Ball,” the dancers resemble grasping spirits, “all their faces—garish in the gaslights” as those of performers on stage. Amid them, anchored by her partner in a drowning pas de deux, a woman dares speak the truth. While her presence at the ball marks her as unreliable and mentally ill, her truth-telling and secret stories are reminiscent of prophetic visions. Again, the line between the divine and the everyday refuses to remain fixed:

and it was okay to drift and tell the truth, your secret stories. To feel the suck and shrush of the wet and to let all their hands touch you and pull you in.

The penultimate poem, “Sylphide,” explicitly addresses the issue of love, using incantatory force. Desire’s ambivalent relationship with ownership, with having, ends the poem in a question: “Have I gotten what I deserved?” The last poem, “Burying,” answers this with “the closure of sound” and the speaker’s final surrender.

Overall, Abigail Cloud’s Sylph is a stunning and sophisticated first collection of poems. The exquisite craft and love of language mark this as a collection well worth reading.

Abigail Cloud
Pleiades Press, 2014