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Book Review: Bread of the Lost by Philomena van Rijswijk

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Philomena van Rijswijk’s poetry is a sensual treat.  As with her fiction, there seems to be no topic off-limits in Bread of the Lost; no intimacy she isn’t willing to explore.  The poetry moves across a wide range of themes, but all of the poems are charged with emotive power, mixed imagery and rich textures, so heady at times, that breaks for breath are needed.  All of the senses are engaged.

The poetry invites the reader to partake of the Bread of the Lost, suggested by the title: each poem a kind of nutritional offering.

The title poem, “Páin Perdú,” epitomizes the multiple meanings and textures inherent in all of the poems. Normally Páin Perdú refers to a kind of French toast made of stale (‘lost’) bread that is re-found through frying the bread in egg custard.

In van Rijswijk’s poem the bread becomes symbolic of many different things through her extended metaphors, the most prevalent being of love and desire not fully consummated. This bread leaves the speaker choking, dying of hunger, despite the bread that is lodged in the throat:

“I am dying from a lump of spoiled bread
Turned to lead in my slender throat:
A bland wadge of hopefulness,
Wedged like a lump of loaf
Cast aloft by a careless hand.”

Through the exquisite alliteration there is irony, transfiguration, nourishment and hunger all working together towards the denouement.  In this case, the “bread” is no longer recovered (though it is a leftover scrap of love), but instead becomes poison, a means to death, yet still exquisite.

Throughout the collection, the subject and object perform a kind of dance where roles are reversed, aligned, torn, and reconfigured, always with a kind of skewed nourishment, as in “Strangled Collision,” where the bread is the love object, imbibed and absorbed like wine and grains of rice, crushed down in a Strangler Fig embrace:

“I could be the gulping throat, and he could be the bright,
Unripe wine.” 

In addition to bread, there is also music that runs, literally in pizzicatos, the sad song of a silent phone, the scream of cicadas, an infant whine, “squealing strains and squawks”, mournful keens and croons, flamenco, the percussion of a “three-mile goods-train”, bass drone, sleep-crazy jazz on the radio, and also figuratively in the rich internal rhythms of the poetry.

The book is full of visuals as well, from the artwork of Degás to the constant patterns of the natural world – the garden, the earth, the backyard, the house, the kitchen, the bed, the beach.  Nature is continually flying, buzzing, growing and transforming throughout each poem against a tapestry of colours (blue-green, aquamarine, celandine) and images.

Finally, there are smells – fecund flowers and the “stink of subterranean ooze”, fermenting milk, “the salt-sweet, tadpole smell”, sleep-breath, and sticky molasses. Beyond the sensuality, the poems manage to be simultaneously timeless and rooted in modernity.  Greek myths and legends (Odysseus, Hades, Baba Yaga, Our Lady of Sorrows) and bucolic scenes sit comfortably with Google Earth, mobile phone settings, Dr Who’s Tardis, and ticking clocks.

The setting of many of the poems is the human body. It is here that the structure of many of the poems are mapped, once again playing between the subject and object; first and third person. The belly, the womb, the buttocks, the heart, the hands, breasts, thighs, lips, eyes, and even the feet all become the backdrop to theemotions pouring out through the poems:

“I know your feet:
Sheep-milk-pale and fine-tuned,
The catgut of tendons tightened
To the ramulka’s jagged pitch. (“And a White Flower”, 52)

Above all the poetry in Bread of the Lost is rich.  Moving between desire, hunger, overwhelming beauty and hideous loss, there is an underlying, unapologetic intensity in every one of these poems. van Rijswijk is able to take the most ordinary of experiences – the drinking of a cup of tea, waiting by a telephone, or perusing a book of pictures – and turn it into a dance of life that flirts at the edge of death.  Bread of the Lost is a beautiful and moving collection that can be plundered and indeed eaten whole or tasted in small sweet mouthfuls like exquisite arsenic kernels.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.