Review of The Branches, the Axe, the Missing by Charlotte Pence
Brooklyn: Black Lawrence Press, 2012. 27 pp. $9.00, paper.
In The Branches, the Axe, the Missing, a poetry collection that recently won the Black River Chapbook Award, Charlotte Pence creates a masterful narrative of memory and loss through the eyes of a recently divorced woman who was sexually abused as a child by her schizophrenic father. Faced with revisiting her childhood and confronting her current circumstances, Pence's speaker attempts to cut off her painful past, but over the course of the collection, discovers that it is impossible to simply sever her memories like she would the branches of a tree. Instead, she must find a new way to heal by retracing her steps to her beginning, to the beginning--of civilization, of language--when people gathered around a fire to tell stories, "connected / by a desire to forget [their] histories." In doing so, while she does not erase the memories of her past, she learns to calm them in a stunning conclusion in which she shares the burden of her past, saying, "The darkness quiets if we watch it together."
Though comprised of individual untitled poems, Pence's collection works together as a beautifully unified whole, beginning and ending with the image of telling a story around a fire, one of "Longing [and] loss." As the speaker's story first blossoms to life, she is returning home from a drive in the rain only to find a tree branch lodged under her car. Although she dreads the responsibility of clearing the debris from her car as "she wants to be warm, eat that leftover lasagna, drink one glass of / boxed red wine," she decides to try to pull the branch out instead, making herself "wet [and]...cold." In doing so, she heads into the storm, making herself vulnerable as she grabs the branch "by the base," a beautiful metaphor of her later grabbing at her own past at its beginnings, pulling in hopes it will come free.
In journeying back to her past, the speaker remembers in reverse chronological order. In nameless poems that evolve and blend into one another as a lifetime of memories do, she remembers her house, SAT words she learned, then as she delves deeper, her secrets become darker with her father's diagnosis of schizophrenia, then darker still as "pedophilia she learned / in the third grade." As the speaker reveals her more painful secrets, the poetic structure changes, too, the lines forming a single stanza, acting as one uninterrupted narrative without breaks in a move that signifies how locked together the speaker's childhood is with her dark memories.
Although the majority of the other poems in this collection utilize space in more inventive ways, words often standing scattered, alone, or on opposite sides of the line, there are denser sections of truth even in these shorter, sparser poems that cannot be disentangled. The speaker finds that she is interwoven into her past much like the branches in a forest she hides behind when her father calls for her, like the piece of red string she finds in the remnants of a bird's nest in that same tree from when "she had torn her red dress at / the edge of these woods." The darkness is a part of her, entangled in her every memory, resurfacing when she least expects it even in adulthood as scents and sounds make "her think / of her father."
However, in attempting to uproot her past and leave memories of her father behind, she must go to where her branches began, where everything began and finds that everyone is born from "fire." Of the collection, these poems are the most experimental, the space between lines and words most abundant, as she gives forth her greatest attempt at separating the events of her life, examining them, and finally, making sense of them. In doing so, she examines the center of existence, of her existence as she retraces mankind back past civilization, past language, to where fire began and discovers that fire, too, came into being through violence, very much like her. She speculates on ways the ancient people may have discovered it, "some brute banging blind / pyrites against flint...some girl tripped, // into a gas-fired strip...juveniles / jousting each other / with smoldering twigs / after lightning struck the savannah," and in each scenario, fire comes from a situation spun out of control. However, the people eventually learned to tame fire and encouraged by this, the speaker hopes to do the same with her past and move forward with her life and the language of the following poems reflect this, the words calmer, the lines more orderly as she finds a sense of peace with herself.
While the speaker may have physically left her father, memories of him stay with her, but she no longer fights them or pushes them away. She finds herself "returning to the base of this / one large maple tree that reminds her of a / tree she sat under with her father years / ago," yet the tree also "teems / of poison ivy." A poignant symbol of her past, the tree and its ivy thrive, "the vine / haired and never-ending." Although she has tried to kill the vine "at least fifteen times," the same number of years she has not seen her father, now, "she / lets it grow, inspired by how it cannot / be controlled, cannot be touched." Though the tree and its vine are dangerous and teem with dark energy, the speaker makes her peace with the tree and her memories associated with it and sits next to it, sustains herself with food and water and "something that / she will not need: a knife."
After this closing narrative, the speaker brings her readers back to where her story began--around a fire--and speculates on the first words spoken by those who discovered fire so long ago. She imagines it was, "Take. / As in: I Give this to you," and in a way, asks her readers to do the same with her story. She uses the words of those who came so long before her and in doing so, switches into their point of view--the first person--thus, owning these words, too, as her own. While she cannot forget her history, she can own it, and quiet it, so that it is no longer threatening. In coming full circle with such a resolution, Pence's The Branches, the Axe, the Missing acts as a striking narrative of beginnings and endings and everything lost in-between, a virtuosic achievement that is undeniable in its poetic brilliance and beauty.
Tawnysha Greene is currently a Ph.D. candidate in fiction writing at the University of Tennessee. Her work has appeared in various literary journals including PANK Magazine and Raleigh Review and is forthcoming in Rougarou: An Online Journal.