To Waltz on a Pin by Zarah Catherine Moeggenberg
Reviewed by Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber
I’ve never written a review of a poetry volume before, and so what a treat it is to begin with Zarah Catherine Moeggenberg. Her recent collection of poems, To Waltz on a Pin (Little Presque Books 2015) has a satisfying self-contained logic, with its themes and subjects tenderly ordered so motifs of loss, perseverance, and sexuality recur at pleasant intervals.
The themes of this queer frauenroman include self-reflection, introspection, and modern love; they often highlight the powerful, life-long burdens of parenting chassés and stumbles that saddle grown children.
The opening trio of poems puts the reader in scene as the poet reconciles herself to leave one lover, then prepare to welcome the next. “How to Unlove Someone” is filled with calls to action: grind, place, fill, write, walk, throw, tell, and cry. Reading then segues into “When You Start to Fall,” with its hyperawareness of details when on the cusp of falling for a new lover. The details make it seem as though a crime is to be committed, and an alibi needs premeditating. Next, “All the Pretty Girls Go Out” speaks of its subject with a collective lust and self-preserving distance.
The densest and longest poem in the collection, (and because my name is Anne I started by reading this one first,) was “Dear Anne.” This is a rich soliloquy – to a lover? a twin? a co-parent? all of these? – which introduces the collection’s most redolent symbol: the brown, muddy waters of a nearby pond. In the poem, a significant bond is broken. The verse hints at a suicide
“…when you left us the pond was a soft brown./I couldn’t breathe, and I’ve stopped fishing.”
One of the more arresting images, here, is of the “slouch and wet-cheeked” father who, by his grief, is reborn anew to the poet, and remade to her at great cost. The dock near the muddy waters is a recurring launch for dreams and realizations. At times, as at the end of “Dear Anne,” the narrator may be unsure how to act, but by staying in motion and near the water, comes closer to the truth.
There’s a series of poems toward the middle of the collection, oh let’s call them the f*cking group, and one in particular, “F*cking Against the Bookcase,” deftly combines the poet’s fascinations of trans-sexual identity and language. During sex, “pronouns catch” until the two lovers “forget (their) names.” Later, in “How to Love Someone,” the limitations of language can be read in a lover’s face: “I like the wrinkle of her bridge because I think she’s trying to get to where I am on the other side.”
Inadvertently pruning the family tree by coming out, as is explored in “Splitter,” is also a powerful subject to broach. The poetic muse isn’t the only one in this collection with everything on the line – the community of family is also fully involved, and fully unable to disguise its own hopes, dreams, and disappointments. I’m reminded of John Crowe Ransom’s “Dead Boy,” wherein a family grieves “the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken.” Powerful.
Throughout the collection, there are rules that are studied, tested, and enforced. I was particularly amused when, in “To the PetSmart Assistant Manager,” the obsessively stalky narrator tries to deduce what her beloved’s work hours are, noting of her Excel spreadsheet: “squares D7, B4, G16 still need their answers.”
Of many interesting facing page arrangements, “Drag King” and “Drag Queen” deserve mention. The former is a prose-poem, shaped low and rectangular as a coffin. This form follows the content perfectly, as the woman who boxes himself in to a male-drag persona must “lose his hips before the stage.” Obversely, the drag queen is played out with pretty slant rhymes (rouge, fused, moves) but “her hips” are also a lie: “a child should not rest in that cradle.”
These are works meant to be read aloud. I do not live near Washington State or Michigan, but if I did I’d keep an ear out for when Moeggenberg might be offering poetry readings. The cadence and meter of “Kitchen Table,” when that father comes to grips with the loss of his child by cleaning, then burying “nose first” the offending shotgun, would be a moving recitation.
There is also an interesting mix of forms in this collection – all-sorts of verse, prose-poems, and hybrids, like a list titled “Tallying Single and Gay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in No Particular Order.” Being single is difficult, and feeling alone is hard and confusing. Another list, “Growing Up Screaming,” is deeply personal and, because it addresses the reader directly, goes through a chronological sequence of abuse and betrayal that is difficult to experience.
I don’t read enough poetry, I swore by Yeats for a long while, but this chapbook gives me cause to read more contemporary work. (I do read enough poetry to be delighted to come across the phrase “silent coffee spoons” in “Homecoming,” and feel like old T.S. Eliot himself just winked at me.)
Of all the poetry by all the poets one has choice to read, I recommend Moeggenberg. I’m no constituent or advocate of hers, any more than I am of A.M. Homes or Julie Orringer. But I like them just the same. Gutsy and talented women writers, with a song in their sentences, who have something beautiful to say about being alive in these troubled times.
To Waltz on a Pin by Zarah Catherine Moeggenberg is not only this author’s first published collection, but also the first publication from small press Little Presque Books, Marquette, MI. Congratulations to publisher Timston Johnston for taking such care in the ordering and curating of this ripe collection. Available through http://www.littlepresquebooks.com, $16.70.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars