Four Weathercocks by Cassandra Cleghorn
Marick Press (April, 2016)
Available through Amazon
Reviewed by Cheney Crow
To read Four Weathercocks is to enter an epistolary journey of reflection and transformation, an encyclical in the word’s original etymological sense — a circular letter— whose themes are subtly announced by the title and content of the opening poem, “Chiasmus”: the manifestation of self in other, “so far from their given forms/as to be mineral or animal”; the inevitability of transformation, “there is no backing down”; and a re-iteration of self, a reflection of or upon the self, an almost Platonic self-hood, “its more deeply bent double.” Cassandra Cleghorn’s use of sound, sense, variation of form, diction, time, pacing, and taxonomy engage her reader in ways that eschew confrontation in favor of conversion.
Sound elements range from the strangely engaging title, “And So the Hairy Vetch Burrowed with the Wheat,” to short-lined couplets rife with alliteration and rhythmic shifts. With this poem’s speaker, we look up from ground level, through short rows dense with meaning, longing for a field we cannot see, threatened by the “bag-eyed/rune-strewn” [vetch], becoming “common oaks stunted to our scale,” and, finally, solitary, yet plural, with the speaker’s four seedlings’: “No one else that day, nothing/but humus, whortleberry, fronds//resurrecting.” We accept the shared journey, its inevitable changes, “sure as heredity” (“Showdown”).
Theme and variation, overt and discreet. A search for taxonomies: animal, vegetable, mineral, biological, medical, anatomical, even mechanical, that give way, through some form of transgression or metamorphosis, to a new iteration, a “doubling” of self that refutes taxonomies’ attempt at permanence. We find evidence that even time is denied its linearity, by history’s presence in the present. Lexically we find, in “Showdown,” a centaur in today’s fall maples; a confounding of centuries emerges when the line, “Woozy raccoon slogs gutter/to culvert” begins a poem called “To St. Hubert, Wonderworker of the Ardennes, Patron of Hunters and Mathematicians, Protector from Rabies,” reminiscent of an illustration in a book of hours. The past is present, yet the only ‘medieval corpus’ in this book is a speaker, not the spoken (‘onto my fork I wind the new datum’). Lines weighty with historical diction sag into slang. Others shift across the page, reshaping space, as “Ransack” does, with its own duality, a different external look and a rare glimpse of interiority: “It is very old in here, inside, where we lodge our griefs.”
With Cleghorn, we travel the worlds of continent, history and myth. We are wooed with image. We return to the self. Everything changes, is itself, is other. In “Valentine,” “His face is the door/thrown open/and I am home,” the speaker finds both self and comfort in another; an enigmatic hope emerges in “how to make of oneself a sail” (“Four Weathercocks”); a threshold crossed, “torch blackened still warm,/ a smudge traced from earlobe/to that hollow he moans into”(Bed of Leaves and Likeneses”). We are reminded of “this, my carbon self” (“He Went So Far as to Confess that He”).
Throughout the book we are aware of the undeclared, the heft of the unsaid, yet Cleghorn’s restraint reels us in, explains itself. In the poem “It is Possible to Live Justly and Happily and Do Good Thing for Men,” a duck dreams “what self a duck can dream,” and the speaker asserts the power of distance for both engagement and address, a purposeful discretion, “That’s the way to put a question,/flattened of panic, extracting from/another’s throttled cries the poise it takes to name/the enemy and the reach of his power.” The poems of Four Weathercocks invite the reader to explore the spheres they compress, to experience their layered expansion. Once we reach “Envoy,” and turn back to the opening poem, “Chiasmus,” it becomes overtly overture, and completes the manuscript’s encyclical by transforming itself through the reader’s inevitable metamorphosis, the occasion of the book.
About the reviewer:
Cheney Crow is a linguist, poet and translator based in Austin, Texas, where she taught at the University of Texas for many years. She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics, an MA in French Linguistics, an MFA in poetry from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poetry has appeared in The Cortland Review, Terminus Literary Magazine, HeART, and Tupelo Quarterly.
About the poet:
Cassandra Cleghorn was trained in classics at UC Santa Cruz before going on to do American Studies at Yale. Her poems have been published in journals including Paris Review, Yale Review, Southwest Review, New Orleans Review and The Common. A recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council poetry award and a finalist for contests at Red Hen, Orchises and Three Candles, Cleghorn’s manuscript caught the eye of Marick Press editor-in-chief, Mariela Griffor. This is Cleghorn’s first book. http://www.cassandracleghorn.com