Though From Nothing, Anya Silver’s third collection of poetry, begins with the titular, Donne-esque poem that distills the book’s overarching themes, one can flip a few pages ahead to “Just Red” to feel the collection’s pulse.
In the poem, the speaker shops while her mother sleeps, her father declines in a nursing home, and her friend lies dying in a hospital. The poem abruptly shifts focus: “What I want tonight is lipstick.” She continues:
As pure a red as I can find–no coral
undertones, no rust or fawn. Just red.
Ignoring the salespeople, I untwist tubes
and scrawl each color on my wrist,
till the blue veins beneath my skin
disappear behind smeared bars.
The act of buying “just red” lipstick becomes a controlling metaphor for the collection as a whole: a woman who is keenly attuned to the world, searching for reminders of its lushness and endurance; a woman who is repeatedly faced with her own mortality and that of those she loves.
And while the lipstick in “Just Red” functions as a talisman of vitality, the nail polish in “Red Never Lasts” is a dovetail response, echoing the larger tension of life and loss at work in the collection. She writes:
For three days, your nails are a Ferris wheel,
a field of roses, a flashing neon Open sign. […]
But soon, after dishwashing, typing, mopping,
the chips begin, first at the very tips and edges
where you hardly notice, then whole shards.
Life and loss are closely, consistently entwined in all three sections of From Nothing. The early poem “Coincides” renders side by side images of the speaker and her sister: “I press my shorn chest / against an X-ray machine and hold my breath, / my sister births from her body a baby girl.” Silver observes a comparable dichotomy of presence and absence in “Redbud,” when spring beckons “each pink knob open,” though “some twigs / remain bare.”
While in “Just Red” there is an urge to assert livelihood in the face of death, “Redbud” ends with a different, more perverse, deeply human impulse: “Sometimes I see / the lushness and want to strip it clean.” Similarly, in “Dannon,” the addressee confronts a monumental, nearly incomprehensible truth with recognizable, human feeling: “When you were first diagnosed with cancer, / a commercial for yogurt made you furious–that others could think about pureed fruit / when you might be dying!”
Many poems in From Nothing directly address the ones Silver has lost, particularly women befriended through the shared experience of living with metastatic cancer. And while the poems circle around the details of sickness and death – hospital beds, morphine, tumors – Silver returns again and again to signs of life that persist amidst loss, as in “Leavings”:
…[I] order my son to pick up his leavings–
towels, pajamas, and inside-out tees.
He loves bare trees with wind shaking them.
My friend, who can hardly breath now,
whose sight is failing her, says she’ll leave
before Christmas–the final leaving,
for which all others are correspondences,
which folds the others in its giant wings.
Silver’s examination of her own body and experiences with cancer make for some of the most compelling work, and “Poise” gives a visceral account of this: “I perform cancer. // […] I will not let myself sleep in public. / The poisons drain into my blood, precious as rubies. / My veins, like a dancer’s ankles, crackle.” By the end of the book, she sustains the impulse to honor her body for its corporeality, and thus its splendor, as we see in “Three Roses”:
In my sternum grows the rarest rose of all–
the gold rose, not plucked in any human garden.
It spreads petals in the chambers of my heart,
gold touching every dark cell of my body with love.
Lay your hands on my chest–here, I give it to you.
Feel your palm of my skin heat and spark
Whether taking root in story, art, history, memory, or what lies beneath the skin, From Nothing is a deft exploration of the body and lived experience–in its flourishing and its fragility.
by Anya Krugovoy Silver
Louisiana State University Press, September 2016
Paperback, 80pp. $17.95
Paige Sullivan recently completed her MFA at Georgia State University, where she also served as the poetry editor of New South. Her poetry and prose have been published in Terminus, Mead, American Literary Review, the Bitter Southerner, and elsewhere. She currently lives and works in Downtown Atlanta. Find her online at @bpaigesullivan / bpaigesullivan.wordpress.com.