Book Review

Cinema Muto by Jesse Lee Kercheval.Carbondale, IL: Crab Orchard Review and Southern Illinois Press, 2009. $14.95,2852.aspx

Reviewed by Estella Lauter

Cinema Muto [silent film], winner of the 2008 open competition award in the Crab Series in Poetry, is an unusual book. All of the poems relate in some way to the experience of watching silent films produced between 1895 and 1927.  Most of the poems come from stimuli provided by the Festival of Silent Film (Giornate del Cinema Muto), which has occurred each October in Pordenone or Sacile, Italy since 1982, and which the author and/or her husband attended between 2001 and 2006. While this tight focus seems at first to be esoteric or academic, the poems engage daily problems along with philosophical questions in language that are highly accessible to any reader. The poems elaborate on themes of love and danger that made silent films popular in their day, while they address the roles films may play in our lives.

The book is divided into three Acts, as if it were itself a film in which the poet plays more than one role. The first Act of 15 poems introduces us to the Festival and its setting in Italy, the speaker's relationship with her husband, her "reading" of several silent films, and her introduction of her own themes of silence, dreams, loneliness, sleeplessness, and God. Early on, Kercheval eases us into the films in a poem about D.W. Griffith's The Adventures of Billy. We "see" an orphan boy gesturing to a dog for help, then "lean forward/ in our red velvet seats,/ ready to rescue Billy ourselves," then learn "what the audience then/ could not know" about the director, the child actress, the end of silent film between the wars. The poem also presents the author's idea that film may represent "how God/ views the living" (6). All this happens in the space of 48 very short lines! Gradually in this section, we become prepared to read a four-page poem with the daunting title "I Due Sogni Ad Occhi Aperti: Two Dreams with Eyes Wide Open" about a poor girl who awakens in a palace as a princess for one day, the prince who has played this prank, the price he is made to pay, and the predictable resolution. Only the girl's canary sits alone at the end of the film. Having established her poetic conventions (italics, brackets, dashes and spaces) for representing filmic action and commenting on it, Kercheval goes on to more complex poetic tasks.

Act II consists of one long poem in 13 parts about the Russian ex-patriot director and actor Ivan Mosjoukine—particularly in his role as Michel Strogoff, who was blinded for crying out when his mother is whipped—and about the poet's fascination with this artist and man. He is right up there with her husband and the city of Paris where the poet was born and where Ivan worked after the Russian Revolution. While introducing us to his roles in several famous films (among them Casanova and Kean),  Kercheval interjects facts from his biography, admiring comments by critics, and examples of her own responses to his films in order to present her own desire to be like him as a poet on the page—conquering her fear and always moving vividly in the moment (43). 

Act III contains 18 poems of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty where each of the poet's themes is taken to a new level.  This act opens in the warmth of a dimly lit theatre with her husband "Before the Movie," but it quickly proceeds to an ambitious effort to follow the scenes of a film (Wives and Oranges directed by Lucio D'Ambra in 1917 ) that has not yet been restored to perfect condition. Titles in-between the frames are missing; elements of the plot, the passage of time,  relationship among characters and motivation are unclear; entire scenes are lost; and yet the oranges that have been cut apart in early scenes fit together perfectly at the end, apparently to symbolize the inevitable fate of young women. Kercheval's running questions about all of the uncertain elements of the film work to make the reader doubt the film's message.

The section continues with responses to several other films before moving on to a set of meditations on film as a metaphor for life and death. In response to Napoleon, directed by Abel Gance in 1925, Kercheval asks us to "Imagine God as a Camera" (71) strapped to the chest of one of the actors in order to film Bonaparte on his sled in a snowball fight, or as he sails his "inadequate boat" from Corsica, or as he swings over the crowds who welcome the Terror. "For if a camera/ can come this close/ to death,/ surely so can God" (72). The poet imagines this God "almost" tasting and smelling death as these events occur, and as Marat "slips/ to God's/ side of the lens" (73). In another reflection, the poet becomes a "Keeper of Light" that streams through her as if she "were a single, bright frame of film" (77). In "Film Upon Film," following the poet Cesar Vallejo, she projects the day of her death "in Italy in October on a day I can already remember" (78), on the opening night of the festival, when, just as the film is about to begin, she will see God, fall on the bridge, "kiss the light/ before it disappears," and sleep without having to watch the film. In the penultimate poem, "Bang," she returns home from this magical world to her dog and children—to smile like Kate Bruce, "the kindly mother/ in nearly every Griffith short" (81)—to resume a life that imitates art, because, as we see in "The Projector" (82), her love affair with silent film, "passionate silence/…hot light falling on the screen," has made her believe in what she calls God, but others mght call Imagination or Art. 

The book is extraordinarily coherent, literate and generative. The poems take the reader on a compelling journey into the world of an art form and an industry that lasted for only 32 years—a world that is after all not so different from our own. In its brief lifespan, accompanied only by sketchy titles and atmospheric piano music, it generated a lexicon of images and gestures that linger in the culture, even if one has never seen a silent film. The poet's role, as Kercheval conceives it here, is to fall asleep and dream as if she were editing a film, "writing intertitles in place of ones/ [her] shut eyes cannot read" (15-16). Now there's a challenge.    

Estella Lauter is Professor Emerita at UW-Oshkosh and lives in the Door Peninsula. Her first chapbook, Pressing a Life Together By Hand (2007) appeared in the New Women’s Voices series from Finishing Line Press, and was nominated for two Pushcart prizes. The Essential Rudder: North Channel Poems was released by FLP in 2008. Her poem "Gaza, January 2009" tied for first prize in the 2009 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Contest; it appears on