The title of Daniela Olszewska's debut collection cloudfang::cakedirt (Horse Less Press, 2012) announces the poet's infatuation with kennings; for throughout her book, they appear over and over again. Take, for instance, the poem “amateur gumshoe hour” that contains (including the title) six occurrences:
hazard a pearl-
filled clue saturated
in tawdry noirlight.
this is a corpsefloat—
trifles over black
velvet. an aversion
isn't that suspicious
under the goblinhard
so go ahead + crack
jokes like knuckles 'n skulls—
the situtation's already
truly arduous w/ mysterious scar
+ a ring of arson might end up solving
these several problems at once. (8)
In A Poets Guide to Poetry, Mary Kinzie claims kennings serve a specific, periphrastic purpose in the linguistic realm: “to sidestep the obvious name in preference to an indirect, evocative one.” In many ways, Olszewska's “noirlight” self-consciously references her use of this poetic trope throughout cloudfang::cakedirt. To be “saturated // in tawdry noirlight,” no doubt, refers to the chiaroscuro techniques, or the interplay of ambient lighting and shadows, used prominently in film noir during the mid-twentieth century. By employing this effect, cinematographers produce patterns in high contrast to one another that accentuate the contours of an object, as opposed to direct lighting which offers viewers surface details of an entire set. Just as low-key lighting is indirect, obfuscating particular aspects of a figure, a kenning, by its very nature, is an act of circumlocution that results in a opacity of meaning.
What does the “noirlight” of kennings that Olszewska casts upon her poems produce? A “truly arduous” text “w/ mysterious scar[s].” While invoking the term “arduous” to describe a poem may turn some readers away, the speaker of “after yr last abortion, things got a little crazy” pleads for us to stay: “o, if you could only learn to find my quirks endearing” (32). If we do find the poets “quirks endearing” and continue reading, then what? On the one hand, the poet rewards dedicated readers with poems that have “an affinity / for parlorsong” (5) while she tries “out / all four versions / of [her] frosted / vegetable voice” (25); on the other hand, she offers us one “emotion- / manufacturing machine” (20) after another.
One could argue that encountering the emotive moments of these little machines is the real joy of cloudfang::cakedirt. While many sound-driven or linguistically experimental poetry collections fail to deliver a Wordsworthian “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” Olszewska's book successfully evokes a wide variety of emotions, in addition to its lush, linguistic qualities. “squid +/or you,” for example, elicits both humor and revulsion:
during one noon exhibition, squid + you crush somebody else's baby by
accident. Squid wraps it in mesh + calls for a rimshot. you grossly
underestimate how long
it takes to calm down a hysterical mother when you're 2 leagues under.
in tulsa, squid half-nelsons an autistic member of themselves
audience + screams that he will never know what it means to say
you don't kiss on the lips + management puts you on notice. (16)
But the speakers of Olszewska's poems provide more than off-color humor; they also allow us to access their fears and insecurities. For instance, “all in favor say neigh” expresses anxiety over failure to connect with one's partner:
i don't think we are forever
yet, don't go waiting for me
to start unslinging my insides
any time even close to soon. (52)
Likewise, in the prose poem “fairytale in which i am an irresponsible pet-sitter,” the speaker documents an entire series of concerns:
i am never having children. if i was less selfish, i would have mentioned this before my teeth started chipping the teacups. everyone says i can't do anything right, that i am so sad, like a unicorn covered in scabies. this probably isn't a surprise, but i'm never going to be thin again. most of my extra-germanic orificies are filled w/ troll paste + dead gingerbread dough. (58)
Whether they relate to childbearing, body image, or mental health, the speaker openly voices her apprehensions and presents us with a personality to which many readers can relate. It's ironic, then, that toward the middle of the collection, one speaker fears whether or not she can properly emote: “there is some possibility / that i'll never really feel fluently in anything” (49).
For all its linguistic density and sonic acrobatics, cloudfang::cakedirt never fails to “feel,” and to do so “fluently.” It is the balance between language play and human emotion, then, that makes Olszewska's a necessary read.