Review of This is Not a Sky by Jessica Piazza
New York: Black Lawrence Press, 2014. 38 pp. $8.95. paper
This is not a sky. It is a book of poems. It is a book of poems that both pays tribute to and draws inspiration from famous works of art. Ekphrastic poems are not new, but Piazza's mastery of sound and rhythm (as displayed in her last collection Interrobang) imbues these poems with both the formal and the modern, crafting images that reach across centuries just as well as the paintings that served as their muses.
The meter of these poems, though never intrusive, creates a defined sense of movement, a sort of breathless, galloping joy that seems fresh and firmly rooted in the present. Everything about these poems places them in the moment of both the painting and the world in which we currently live. In "Café Terrace at Night", we could be reading about hipsters on Instagram when we read lines like "It's Venice. Or Paris./They're tipsy. They're gorgeous" and "The patrons, bedazzled on red woven rugs, drink/café au lait, limoncello, and wine. " Yet, when we use the QR code on the page to view Van Gogh's painting, they fit his world just as well. The same dichotomy of now/then works particularly well in "The Fight Between Carnival and Lent" (after Brueggels) and "Two Girls in Black" (after Renoir).
The poems take on many forms—three prose blocks for the three colors of Andy Warhol's "Gun;" traditional left-margined stanzas; a cento from the philosophers and artists depicted in Raphael's School of Athens; and even a three-columned poem after a Twombley painting. Although the forms vary, Piazza maintains a consistent use of rhyme (both end and internal), rhythm, and sound. Although there is a spiritual element in some of the poems and their topics - God in Chagall's "Adam and Eve," god in the bullring, and god in Hokusai's great wave—Piazza's poems all worship the great god of sound, each poem rich in alliteration, rhyme, and assonance that, in a lesser poet's hands, might seem forced. Piazza's use of the poet's sound device toolbox, however, reminds the reader that art is both connected to yet in another realm than our ordinary, petty lives.
Consider these lines from "The Treachery of Images" (after Magritte):
"Your silence resides between the rise of breath and whispers of brush and of
stroke. Brooms swish, but no room and the moon is still full of itself, alone.
You're home, but the fire's unstoked. (This is not a joke.)..."
Alliteration? Check. (Silence, stroke, swish, still/ between, breath,brush, brooms.) Assonance? Check. (Silence, resides, rise, fire/whispers, swish, still, itself/room, moon/alone, home, unstoked, joke.) Rhyme? Check. (stroke, unstoked, joke/alone, home.) Any other writer who told me they would include two alliterative strings, four strings of assonance, and a rhyme scheme in three lines would have me doubting, but Piazza's skill in holding back just enough and choosing diction that is elevated but not overblown makes it work. This happens in almost every poem, and as as reader, the sound made me read them over and over aloud to appreciate this much attention to detail.
The poet Marvin Bell is quoted as saying, "It's not what one begins with that matters; it's the quality of attention paid to it thereafter." Attention has been paid in this collection: to visual art, to sound, to specificity of language, and to the landscapes of human emotion that art portrays.
You can purchase This Is Not a Sky here.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013). Her work has appeared in many journals including Rhino, Linebreak, Cider Press Review, Stirring, Sweet, wicked alice, and Weave. Her fifth chapbook, We Build Houses of Our Bodies was released in late 2013 by Dancing Girl Press, and her second poetry collection is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016.