Book Review

Cathryn Cofell, Sister Satellite, Cowfeather Press, 2013

 Reviewed by Mark Zimmermann

 “The Point at Which Crying Causes Alarm” is the title of four different poems spaced throughout the four sections of Cathryn Cofell’s new poetry collection Sister Satellite. Taken together, appearing and reappearing as they do (like echoes or memories), these poems provide a fair representation of concerns and perspectives that animate much of the work here. The first of the four reads:

People secretly pass me phone numbers
of therapists and priests they say helped,
once, that time when he died or she left
or madness snuck up from the cellar,
but I don’t believe a one of them.
They never did dial,
never did a damn thing.
They want us to believe
they are stable,
but they wear their weeping on the inside—
I hear the ceaseless ringing.
I see their faces scrunch in the just between us
smirk—though we know there is nothing
between us,
they can’t wait to tell,
to set the world whispering away—
and before they slink away, always the hand
that captures
mine too long before letting go.
As if I’m the one
thin and flighty as a lost contact lens
or a moth frantic for escape.

The experience of being stuck with shallow, untrustworthy others at a time of crisis; the sense of solitude and retrospection; the knowing air of one who sees beyond appearance and gesture: I’ve got you down for exactly what you are; and the self-reliant will of one who knows very well just what life has dealt out but who also moves in on it on her own terms—these, to me, characterize the resilient, wise narrator of this poem and those of many other fine poems in Cofell’s work.

There’s a frequently retrospective air in this book. The poet has been marking her time (and her times) for many years, it seems. Often the narrator of a poem recounts her experiences at a specific age or life-defining moment. I found the reminiscences of girls on the cusp of adolescence and/or coming-of-age especially poignant, the opening stanzas of “Wrappers” among them.

You’re twelve and in love with the boy next door
only you don’t quite know it yet.

That tingle between your legs
is something you fumble for while your sister sleeps,
while you are awake and dreaming.
You play married, practice that first boy kiss
against your pillow, hide pennies under
your tongue to imagine his taste.

The next day you’re doing laps in the pool
and suddenly blood is everywhere.
You check the water for sharks.
You dead-man float but no one comes
to save you. This is how you learn
you are a woman: a pool of blood,
underwear packed with toilet paper,
a grocery bag handed over without words,
filled with pads and belts, too many loose ends.

You grow into this, the best you know how.
Follow package instructions, listen in the halls,
peel tampons like popsicles,
meet a proper boy who peels you like a popsicle,
makes you bleed on his gold shag rug.
You think about buying protection, being protected,
being exposed like a grifter.

“You grow into this, the best you know how.” What a lonely line this is! Again the sense of being on one’s own, of having to figure things out by yourself. The poem continues into somber reflections on a woman’s experiences—some readers will see at least part of this as Women’s Experience—from adolescence through coming-of-age and adulthood. Elsewhere, however, the reader will find work in which it’s perfectly clear that the woman/narrator has grown confidently into her skin, literally and metaphorically, as in “In Praise of Small Breasts” and “The Shape of a Woman.”

This book also leaves me wondering: Just who is speaking in some of the most deeply personal of the poems in it? When are the experiences in them rooted in autobiography? When are they rooted in empathizing with and imagining the experiences of others, primarily women and girls? To the extent that Cofell works in an autobiographical vein, it seems that she has weathered a hell of a lot and not only endured it but did so with a creative flair that strengthens her writing. To the extent that some of her narrators might be personas, Cofell reveals a generous capacity for empathetic imagination and engagement with others. Either way, this is a writer unafraid of taking on tough challenges. Pandora may reign in Sister Satellite as goddess of hard knocks, as queen of human frailties, busted dreams, and sorrows, but in her varied talents as a writer Cofell the poet rules.

Meanwhile, I’d hesitate to label Cofell’s work as “women’s poetry” or “women’s lit.” Certainly there are powerful feminist sensibilities that animate key themes and situations in this book, but sometimes the very same labels used to classify or validate a body of writing can also consign it to a rather narrow space on the shelf and obscure its larger relevance. These are poems for women and men alike, dealing in what used to be known as leitmotifs and universal truths. The fact that humane and progressive sensibilities appear often in Sister Satellite is welcome, to this reader anyway, but the excellence of the poems-as-poems is primarily due to Cofell’s mastery of poetic craft: original and concise language, richness of metaphor and analogy, well wrought stanzas and line breaks, to name just a few.

In its emotional and intellectual candor, and creative wisdom, Sister Satellite merits as wide a readership as possible and Cofell deserves some kind of literary award for having written it.

Since 2004 Mark Zimmermann has lived with his wife in Milwaukee where he teaches writing and humanities courses at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Before that they spent a year in northern Poland, nearly three years in Budapest, and eight years in Japan.