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Reviews:

from New Madrid Journal, Summer 2007, pp. 130-131 (reprinted by permission of New Madrid Journal and the author. Info at www.newmadridjournal.org)

from American Book Review, 2008, excerpted by permission of the author.

 

   

 

Silkie
by Anne-Marie Cusac
Many Mountains Moving Press, 2007
84 pages
$14.95

 

Reviewed by Gregory Hagan

 

The Celtic-Norse folk ballad “The Great Silke of Sule Sherry” rocks the waves on the shores of the Orkney Islands. The story is rather simple, shrouded in myth and magic. A young maiden falls in love with a silkie, a creature with the power to shape-shift from a seal at sea to a man on land after he has shed his seal skin. The maiden then has a child by him, and he promises to return for his child after seven years with a bag of gold. In some versions, the silkie also predicts that the maiden will marry a seal hunter who will kill both him and the child. Ann Marie Cusac explores this myth in her second collection of poetry, Silkie, a narrative sequence, and in so doing creates a book that like the silkie “leaps like a white wing.”

 

Cusac’s work has appeared in Poetry, the Iowa Review, the Crab Orchard Review, and other magazines. Her first collection of poetry, The Mean Days, appeared in 2001. She is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is currently a contributing writer for The Progressive and a professor in Communication at Roosevelt University.

 

Dulsie, Cusac’s version of the young woman who falls in love with the silkie, is disarmingly sweet but “wild enough / to sleep alone on the beach,” not once but many times, and seals “can spot a girl like that,” a young woman whose body throws off a certain light. A silkie fathers her child. In this act of passion, the silkie does not seduce her violently like Leda’s swan, but rather softly, with “the sound of lapping waves” and “the sand / giving under her shoulders.”

 

Cusac’s poems can be gentle and charming and also frightening as a fairy tale. Listen to the suitor-seal when he speaks to Dulsie: “You’ll have our daughter for seven years. I’ll come back for her / and pay you for your trouble.” The central figure, Dulsie, perhaps at most a high school senior when the sequence of poems begins, is electric, ephemeral, enigmatic and myth herself. Her hair flames, and she calls men and boys to lust. She even leaps fires on the beach “as if lifted on silk.” Dulsie’s father doesn’t understand her, and neither do we. He says, “I stare and see just motion / as if darkness hurries down the staircase.” Scott Boyd, a fellow classmate of Dulsie’s, sees her this way: “her current / still travels across us / the way a rank vine infects a wall.” Dulsie is bitter, tough and fragile, all at the same time. When the silkie departs, “she shivers,” and so do we. Dulsie is attracted to that which she cannot ultimately possess, and we are drawn to her like the silkie.

 

Cusac creates lyrical magic in the poem “silkie song." Here the silkie speaks of Dulsie: “She flames like a window at evening / her hair the color of late sunset / so low and molten it drips into the water.” Like Dulsie’s body, Cusac’s poems cast a certain transcendant light, allowing them to reveal the traumatic disappearance of the self. Her poems also explore transformation and the hunger for transformation. In the poem, “if she could change,” Dulsie and the silkie stand before one another:

 

But the night she really tries,
when he begins to shudder and shift
and she runs to him, and pulls him
heavily onto her, willing whatever alchemy
makes him differ so from himself
to change her, too, his torso pounds
the breathing out of her lungs.
The new face tips and takes her in,
surprised, indifferent.

 

Few of these poems stand alone but instead are connected with a silk thread to create a work akin to a novella often punctuated by the brutal thread of realism. Cusac sometimes excerpts comments from seal hunters. For example, Jack Nicholson of St. Paul’s Island recounts: “We had a sheath knife in our belt and a club—and when you see a seal you’d club him across the nose and sell him.” This cruel reality is the ticket into the realm of myth. When Dulsie finds herself with child, her “monster, darling,” she thinks, “she and the life swimming inside her / are one more trick / of fecundity?”

 

In this collection, you will find love, and the need for love; you will find grief; you will find the possibility of another world; you will encounter desire and death. One August summer as I crossed over from Portland, Maine on the ferry to Peaks Island, I gave little thought to “The Great Silke of Sule Sherry” while seals with all too human eyes bobbed their heads in Casco Bay, their curious eyes following the human cargo. As Joseph Campbell has said, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.” Cusac interweaves big poems in Silkie, and the sum is greater than the parts.

 

 

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Silkie
Anne-Marie Cusac
Many Mountains Moving Press
84 pages; paper, $14.95

Review by Carol Quinn, Myths of the Skin Trade

In the author’s preface to this collection of poems, Anne-Marie Cusac explains that, according to Irish and Scottish folklore (distantly remembered in Nova Scotia, where these poems are set), “A Silkie is a mythical creature, a seal that leaves the ocean and takes human shape.” Silkies are exceptionally beautiful and watch the shoreline for potential human mates who may have strayed from society or become discontented with their home lives. In her afterword, Cusac writes that, throughout the Canadian Maritime provinces, “seals have plunged in status from a source of food and clothing . . . to an animal akin to a rodent, crowding and polluting beaches, and eating too much.” Since the 1970s, strict regulation of seal hunting has all but ended the fur trade, and is believed by many Maritimers to have devastated the fishing industry. The collection of poems that results from the conflation of these narratives, however, is less an environmental fable than it is a book-length, mythologized account of impossible love. In a place where survival is difficult, an immortal Silkie and a human woman are fated by their very natures to be incompatible. They have different conceptions of time and conflicting expectations in love. Even the alleged ravenousness of the seal has been incorporated into Cusac’s myth, as the Silkie sometimes speaks of his desire for women in terms of his gluttony. The phenomenological boundary of the sea and the lovers’ different outlooks on time, mortality, and desire give this story of doomed love a mythic resonance.

 

....In its treatment of loss, Cusac’s book may recall Robert Alter’s idea that “Myth . . . enables [humans] to experience imaginatively what logic might deny . . .” The poems are replete with challenges to the central character’s sense of reality. After the Silkie seduces Dulsie (Cusac’s protagonist), Dulsie’s father warns her, “The legal code doesn’t apply / to impossibilities.” Such a statement reminds Dulsie that she has left the protection of her society, and challenges the validity of her perceptions. Dulsie’s urges and instincts are similarly questioned: “the need creeping along her lips / is not anything / anyone calls ‘real.’” She will respond to her own pregnancy and eventual abandonment with both disbelief and the meager faith of perpetual desire, as cognitive dissonance is the hallmark of this relationship.

 

Dulsie is not the only character to experience doubt and faith simultaneously—and this contradiction may give Cusac’s mythic narrative a particularly contemporary feel. If myths were once unquestioningly believed, a modern audience may sometimes hope that myths contain a sort of truth—the record of an event in the distant past, for example—but also approach myths with skepticism. Dulsie exists at this crux of belief and disbelief, as does the narrator of “metamorphosis 1,” who describes the Silkie’s transformation (apparently while the speaker is skinning a seal):

 

Don’t imagine
the change in skin


slit snip scissor

from wet, thick, fatted

whittle hack

to papery and thin
doesn’t cause pain.

 

Sealskins are central to both Cusac’s myth and the ecological controversy surrounding the seal hunt. The Silkie’s sealskin is his means of escape from Dulsie: a caul of mutability into which he is reborn as a being who scarcely remembers his human lover. Dulsie will steal the Silkie’s fur in an attempt to “make him human,” “change his nature and his smell,” and make it so “he cannot leave her, and she’s won.” In the process, she will unknowingly cause so much pain that he can no longer stay with her.

 

In his 1949 work, Before Philosophy, Henri Frankfort proposes that “Myth is a form of poetry which transcends poetry in that it proclaims a truth . . .” Unfortunately for Cusac, a twenty-first century audience may take issue with Frankfort’s assertion (and even the Roman Neoplatonist Salustius said, “The world itself can be considered a myth”). Contemporary readers may bring to every line—every word, even—the mixture of belief and doubt they would apply to myth. Little is taken on faith alone. While describing Dulsie after the loss of her daughter, the poet may write with perfect conviction,

Her love harsh as twine,
she rows, grimaces,
stares. Somewhere ahead, she’s sure,
though her memories weigh so much they’d
double her body if she let them,
the slippery child
spanks the surface with her tailfin,
lunging, bopping higgledy-piggledy.

 

....Cusac’s best poems help us to understand how others may become like myths to us once they are lost. Such mythmaking facilitates our survival.