Book Review

Startled Night, Elana Wolff, (Guernica, 2011) 75 pp. $15.00 ISBN978-1-55071-348-0

Review by John B. Lee, Poet Laureate of Norfolk County
.................................... Poet Laureate of the City of Brantford

Sometimes reading Elana Wolff’s new collection of poetry, Startled Nights requires a dictionary to be close at hand. Erudition in botany, papermaking, visual arts, music, and the literary arts goes a long way to deepening the pleasure available in reading this work. If you already know that an “Aubade” is a morning song, that “Embouchure” involves the way the mouth is applied to a woodwind instrument, that “sigils” are signs or words or devices with occult power, that Fabriano is a kind of paper, and that “woad” is blue dyestuff, then you will get the entire pleasure at a first pass through. I, for one, needed to keep my dictionary close at hand. I read the entire book without looking anything up, and then read it again cribbing my Webster’s like a schoolboy. I was particularly gratified by seeking out the sources for the poem, “Two in Raluca’s Waiting Room.” This glosa inspired by a verse from Thomas Bernhard’s poem, “Under an Iron Moon,” yielded the following bits of fun. I discovered that “Raluca’s Waiting Room” is a photograph by Romanian photographer, Raluca Deca. I printed the photograph and spent some time regarding the people in the photograph and studying the quality of light and shade therein. I found and read Austrian poet Thomas Bernhard’s entire poem in translation and was particularly struck by this verse immediately preceding the verse chosen for the glosa: “The cock crows through a rag/ of skin and gorges/ in the blood/ that is sawing apart/ my chest.” Digging just a little deeper, I discovered that Bernhard’s poem was inspired by a line from the play Woyzeck by Bûcher spoken by a character named Marie who observing the redness of one particular moonrise said of the red moon it was “like a bloody red iron or hoop shackle.” The verse chosen by Wolff for her glosa is far less grotesque than its precursor, and it ends lyrically, “as the stars/ on the mountaintop/ dance red.” The aforementioned mountaintop inspired Wolff to think of Kilimanjaro, a reference to the mountain in a painting in a waiting room where Elana Wolff finds herself, viewing a splat of red that she writes of in these concluding words, “The splat returns to liquid, flowing down/ Uhuru Peak—Rose Pink, Scarlet Lake, Dance Red.” Thus she returns us to Bernhard’s shared closing, “dance red.” I must say I had great fun digging in and refusing to allow these poems pass me by without getting what they were after in me. Although I am still unable to comprehend just exactly what the word “Ûberwurts” means, in her poem, “From the Ground Up,” Elana Wolff assures us they are harmless. I recommend you read this book. If you are like me and need to go to ground, and dig in, and seek the meaning of words beyond your ken, and, if you are like, me and find this endeavor both engaging and pleasurable, you will greatly enjoy this masterful book of poems. There is joy in difficulty. I laughed out loud at the only slightly cryptic riddle “Happiness is a dactyl.” I delighted in the clever punning, “subtle gets jumbled to sublet/ “s” slips off and lands before laughter, / thinking devolves to ink/ feeling to eel,?” and then the shiver “and the lion lows as the monkeys hump.” This is rich soil. Humus. Moist-earth poetry. Fertile stuff. I did the work and my hands are wet to the wrist, gloved in soil, and I’m still playing in the garden.