By Ian Kennedy
In the second installment of our series on nature poetry, we turn to Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello’s Hour of the Ox (2016). Like the first collection we considered, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Cancio-Bello takes natural themes as a way to foil urban and modern infringement on human life. The volume structures itself on a comparison of two islands: one is the urban archipelago of New York City, and the other is semi-tropical and lies about one third of the way from Busan to Shanghai, floating in the East China Sea: Jeju-do.
Home to South Korea’s highest point, brightest oranges, blackest pork, famous abalone divers, humanoid standing stones, and countless other tourist and local attractions, Jeju sometimes seems like just a playground Seoul’s urban elite. For Cancio-Bello, however, Jeju is both home and setting for her verses about the intersection between the rural, the natural, and the lost. Dishes particular to the island, like jeonbokjuk, a thin porridge of rice flavored with abalone, appear entwined with family members, and invite readers into a version of the island inaccessible by tour-busses or rental cars. But we do not gain entrance to a celebration of (multi)cultural expression and joy (though there is beauty aplenty). Instead, what we find is a fabric woven of grief and memory, wefted with Jeju’s essence.
Cancio-Bello’s aptness for description of the physical and meta-physical is on display in ‘History,’ where spoilage and life lead to memory and historians are notably absent. Instead, knowledge of the past comes from objects, from smells, from dreams and tangerines. The citrus fruits sprout everywhere, arriving in one poem as part of a gift from grandmother. The distance they’ve traveled is manifest in their rotted state of arrival. “Grandmother sent a box/ of tangerines and a small/ glass teapot, but/ the tangerines had spoiled,” the poem opens. Cancio-Bello reaps this kind of complexity from her themes. The richness of Jeju (which is both distant and past), contrasts with the implicit setting of many (all?) of the collected poems, almost clumsily revealed with the line, from ‘Old Country, New World,’ “Enormous apples, umbral faces,/ a thousand languages in the same breath.” Receiving grandmother’s tangerines in New York closes the distance in time and space, but also encloses the poet in her room: the final lines compare her window to a coffin.
We’re used to cultural details showing up in expat literature, usually to establish the author as a former insider belonging to a particular culture, but now an outsider everywhere who doesn’t quite fit in either their new or former home. Details of clothing and food and tradition show groupness and difference, showing how past experiences varies what is salient. Cancio-Bello, though, invokes the tapestry of Jeju’s symbolism differently. The poems in Hour don’t suggest that dislocation from home means loss of belonging, but that when home is suffused with loss, experience can’t be expressed in a single emotional valence. Dealing with such complexity of feeling is, along with the clear and beautiful imagery, one of the main strengths of the collection. As readers we are moved by Cancio-Bello’s words, but in many directions at once.
This is especially true as the book closes with ‘Songs of Thirst: Six Sijo.’ These poems are each only three lines long, but comfortably span an impressive emotional range. Sijo is a form of Korean verse form which is, in classical instances, impressionistic, sad, and beautiful. Their height of popularity in the modern era was in the midst of Japanese colonization of the peninsula, when poetry allowed the expression of feelings which would otherwise face censorship.
Cancio-Bello’s contributions are each wonderful on their own, like this concise memory:
Grandmother’s fingers binding a dragonfly body with silk,
unspooling the thread, knotting it around my thumb for a kite.
Her hand hard against my face for letting it slip so soon.
Joy, anguish, humanity, and impermanence wrap themselves together in these scant lines. I see and want a living kite, and a grandmother who can give me one, just as strongly as I feel the hurt in both child and matriarch when things end sooner than we’d hoped. Together, though, the six final Sijo make a real contribution to the sizable poetic commentary on thirst. It is a particular feeling, and one closely related to loss and grieving. Both feelings emphasize how our experience is often dominated by absence rather than presence. They differ though. Loss reaches out and gets stuck in the past, its future one of imagined permanent longing. Thirst is also about what we don’t have, but it remembers a past when we were satisfied and holds out a possible future where we have enough again.
Hour of the Ox is widely available, but I direct you do the author’s website. The price there is the same, but you’ll receive a signed copy.