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book image Ice, Mouth, Song
Rachel Contreni Flynn
Tupelo Press
$16.95, 85 pages

Reviewed by: Amy Unsworth
Book rating: 8 out of 10 stars

View three poems from Ice, Mouth, Song here


     When I read the blurbs on the back of Rachel Contreni Flynn's Ice, Mouth, Song several of the comments about the book such as Michael Collier's "lyrical images that cohere with the force of archetypes" and Carl Dennis's "elliptical, and densely imagistic" immediately brought to mind the Deep Image movement in American Poetry. As few women have participated in this literary mode, I was intrigued by the possibility that Flynn may have become one of the few female voices in a mode dominated by the likes of W. S. Merwin and Robert Bly. In the introduction section for the Deep Imagists in Twentieth-Century American Poetry states these goals for the poetry: "attainment of silence, the journey inward, the recognition of 'one's very self' through the unknown 'interior universe' of primal archetypes" (780). While the book may not address primal archetypes, Ice, Mouth, Song works as an inward journey complete with totemic images while also acting as a record of external events.
     Flynn's work seeks to explore the self, and the nexus of experience and understanding. The leaping, associative method that dominates Deep Image work is also employed by Flynn, although her work seems to explore images with a personal symbolism rather than those that evoke primal archetypes. For example, her poem "Red Brick Hungry" resonates around the central image of bricks and the speaker's experiences are expressed in relationship to the bricks that she encounters in various stages of her life. If it cannot neatly fit into the Deep Image ideal, the book at least seems to be influenced by Deep Image technique. Poems such as "The Match Girl Lights Them One by One" and "Sleep" work with a similar associative logic as W. S. Merwin's "Some Last Questions." Others such as "Gold Stars" and "Blue Mantilla" demonstrate a truncated narrative approach; the story is partially told and the reader is left to imaginatively fill in the details of the conclusion. The more associative poems, at times, are difficult to parse as some of the images appear to be too personal and internal. Otherwise, the lyrical poems add to the overall bleak mood that the book seeks to evoke and help develop the context in which the narrative poems should be read. Overall, however, the book as a whole frustrates the desire for a clear narrative and gives us instead the lyrical with its sense of emotional truth. And while the poems do not celebrate life per se, they do honor the speaker's survival of a grievous past.
     After re-reading Ice, Mouth, Song, I also suggest that Sylvia Plath's work might also have influenced this collection. While the poems do not seem quite as confessional as Plath's work, there are several poems that share similarities in theme or subject matter with some of the poems of Ariel. The indictment of the grandmother in "Limonges," the journey in "Poem on the Road to Depose," and the bride of "Still Slipping" are in their imagery reminiscent of Plath's "Daddy," "Getting There," and "The Applicant." "Black Appendix" recalls Plath's "Tulips;" both poems explore the experience of an appendectomy and the altered states of consciousness that hospitalization and medication can induce.
     The overall thematic elements of Ice, Mouth, Song hint at a rural upbringing laced with tragedy: the sickness of a sister, the degradation of the family unit, and an unhappy transition into the adult world. While the final poem of the collection claims "I will not be sad in this world" the bulk of the poems in the book seem to be about deeply held sorrows. In "Dead Center," one of the opening poems of the book, for instance:
the autumn my mother left
   a coldness opened. . .

Beans dried to snake tails in the fields
   and my chest filled with rust.
     In the first section of the book, there is desperation apparent as the child speaker tries to prevent further erosion of her family and is unable to do so. In this family, it is the father who has been responsible for the children and there is a sense of resentment for the women: the mother who "spreads buckets of her children on the garden" and the grandmother who shatters what is precious. Even though the speaker searches for answers and tries, after the mother's abandonment, to take care of those around her, the truck still comes "and drives off//with all/ the little things:" which include her siblings. The sorrow seems inescapable.
     The sense of disconnection and abandonment continues into the second and third sections as the speaker ages and attempts to enter, perhaps prematurely, into the adult world. In one of the most memorable poems of the book, "State Home, 1984" the fifteen year old speaker works as a caretaker for the elderly. When one of the speaker's patients "dies in the tub" she goes to find help only to discover that "There is no help" and she must struggle on alone with both the physical removal of the body and her own emotional reaction. While the tone of many of these later poems is still somber, there are a few which offer a modicum of discovered joy in an otherwise bleak existence. In "The Delight of Warehouses" the speaker seems to come to an acceptance of the troubled landscape of her life, and find within the warehouses a place where "the dark becomes us" and happiness is attainable even if only in measured amounts.
     Ice, Mouth, Song, published by Tupelo Press, was selected by Steven Dunn as the winner of the 2003 Dorset Prize. And Michael Collier writes that this collection "uses memory's various trajectories to reassemble the pieces of a midwestern childhood." The book feels then, like pieces of a puzzle that one must shift and sort to find how the various parts interlock. It is a collection that becomes more satisfying on subsequent readings as the pieces begin to slip into place and the expanse of the poet's world becomes evident.

View three poems from Ice, Mouth, Song here

  Born outside Paris, Rachel Contreni Flynn grew up in a small Indiana farming town and now teaches poetry and practices law near Chicago. She received degrees with honors in history and journalism from Indiana University in 1991, then went on to law school at Loyola University. After receiving her law degree in 1994, Flynn worked at a large law firm in Chicago and began studying poetry. She received an MFA from Warren Wilson College in 2001. In 2003, she received an Artists Fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council in poetry.

Flynn's book, Ice, Mouth, Song, is the second winner of Tupelo's Dorset Prize. The 2003 Dorset Prize was selected by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn who commented, "Ice, Mouth, Song has a haunting beauty to it and an economy of phrasing consonant with its spare landscapes and mindscapes. Flynn will not pretty up her world, nor will she be defeated by its harshness... She's written a book that makes easier the difficult task of judging contests."

Widely published in such magazines and journals as Barrow Street, Washington Square, Spoon River Review, Oxford Magazine, and Epoch, Flynn's work has been anthologized by Heather McHugh. Rachel Flynn also works as a corporate attorney for Fortune Brands, Inc., a Fortune 500 consumer products company where she specializes in employment law. She lives in Mundelein, Illinois with her husband and young daughter and son and is working on her second book.
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