Book Review: Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue by Hélène Cardona
Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue is Hélène Cardona’s fecund title for envisioning, in two languages, a poetry afloat in life and life in poetry—pendulous, pensive, spontaneous, in suspense and suspension. This third of her bilingual lyrical collections implicitly reveals how so much of our thinking and feeling depends upon the Indo-European root of “(s)pen-.” Much weight has been hung upon it by poets ancient and modern. One thinks of Coleridge’s description of the imagination, “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.” Or Ovid’s description of the newly created earth in the opening of his Metamorphoses, “pendebat in aere tellus,” that is, “the pendulous round Earth with balance’t air in counterpoise,” to use Milton’s translation of Ovid’s phrasing, inserted into Book 4 of Paradise Lost to remind us what’s at stake should angels make war. Cardona’s first poem in the collection, “To Kitty, Who Loved the Sea and Somerset Maugham,” also summons angels who weigh upon human life, in this case, “The angel who smells of my childhood / my mother” (“L’ange aux senteurs de mon enfance / ma mère”). The deceased mother Kitty appears to the speaker as a vivid memory conspicuously constructed out of the speaker’s experiences with art, music and nature associated with her absent mother, who also somehow continues as a living being inside the speaker:
Whose warm breath I breathed
This morning as I woke
The scent of gardenias whispering
I never left you
Son souffle chaud que je respire encore
Et ce matin au réveil
Le parfum des gardénias qui murmurent
Je ne t’ai jamais quittée
This inaugural poem, the only one lacking a period in the collection, initiates the reader into the between-world of the senses and the imagination that arises out of their interplay in the life within. The poems throughout the book explore various poetic and artistic legacies, from Welsh medieval legend to Klimt, Cocteau and Spielberg, that comprise something like an ages-old enterprise in the pursuit of rapture or a hyper-mode of being.
States of suspension abound in the poet’s vision of art, poetry and life. Consider the stellar phrasing in the last poem in the book “Spellbound” (“Envoûtée”) offered as a description of being under the influence of dream: “lumière / défiant la pesanteur” (“light / defying gravity”). Or the poem “Low Altitude” (“Basse Altitude”) in which the speaker identifies the course she sets her sights on, where her spirit both elevates and is weighed down: “Je vole à une altitude vertigineusement basse” (“I fly at a delicately-low altitude”). This state of flying low induces metamorphoses both exhilarating and dangerous as recognized by the poem “A Mind Like Lightning” (“Un Esprit Comme l’Éclair”) whose phrasing recalls the earlier poem “Low Altitude:”
….Je vole en éclats,
En mille morceaux scintillants
……I fly into a thousand pieces,
……….Add sparkle to various reflections
Suspended vision turns the poet into a miraculous kind of creature, “A Winter Horse” as a later poem has it, whose rambles are guided by an imagined maternal rider:
My mother blows directions in my ear
from the other side.
The spokes of the wheel loosen
amidst thoughts like wind
storms containing all humanity.
These whirlwind, global rides that take over the speaker’s mind, “un tourbillon de pensées,” are rooted, weighted or suspended by the supportive, beloved figure of the mother as the title poem “Life in Suspension” makes clear. This poem tells the story of the speaker’s developing biological and artistic life that also looks out to all human life in its love for and bond with a fostering mother figure. The speaker exists somewhere between the mythical and the all-too-human. She claims allegorical status—“I am the Memory Collector” (Je suis la Collectionneuse de souvenirs”)—but she also longs for her own life:
I’m in my mother’s womb in Paris.
She’s scared. I want to get out.
Je suis dans le ventre de ma mère à Paris.
Elle a peur, je veux sortir de là.
One’s origin is forever set but the journey ahead is ever unclear. Thrust into the world, the poet as growing child encounters a widening terrain, from France to Italy, Germany, Geneva, Spain, Wales, and America:
I’m sixteen years old, off to San Diego.
My mother cries at the Paris airport.
She breaks my heart but the pull is stronger.
The English “pull” in the last line the poet renders into French by “l’appel”—more properly translated as “the call:” “Elle me brise le coeur mais l’appel est plus fort.” This sentient and imaginary experience, where the pull of absence can make the call of presence stronger, is a liminal one that Cardona returns to again and again. “Je me suspends dans le vide” (“I hang in the void”) declares the poet-speaker in “Galactic Architect,” the sonnet-like poem found near the mid-point in the collection. A subsequent poem, in fourteen lines of free verse, echoes this non-position. Entitled “Dans le néant” (“In the Nothingness”), it offers view of an imaginary non-site, a utopia perhaps, necessary for the verbal suspension of poetry:
….the years of my life,
………..plucking daisy petals.
….the losses of my life,
……….blowing kisses in the air.
Simulating existence suspended in a pulse of being and nothingness, the book alternates free and formal poetry, with pantoums, sonnets and sonnet-like forms interspersed among the predominantly free verse. Involving more than a translation of one language into another, Cardona’s ability to write or fly low, in French and English poetry, creates semantic nuances that light up in multiple directions, while her writing pays close heed to the base level of syntax, rhythm, line and sentence. Her work presents a tender, pensile world that merits repeated line by line explorations.
Anthony DiMatteo’s recent poetry collection is In Defense of Puppets (Future Cycle Press, 2016). He is a professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology.