(Book review) Poemas Ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal by Donna J. Snyder, reviewed by Mary Saracino

Poemas Ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal (Chimbarazu Press 2014)  Donna J. Snyder

DS Catafalco_Cove final_DonnaSnyder_BookCoverIt is a poet’s challenge to find language for emotions that elude language. In Poemas Ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal, Donna Snyder uses her considerable gifts to translate the soul’s bodily wisdom into words that simultaneously pierce the heart and offer solace.

This collection of poetry is a personal and intimate testament to how grief and bereavement can undo the human spirit, rain unbearable suffering down upon the human body. Snyder takes our hearts in her very capable hands and leads us over the steep hills and through the deep valleys of grief and surrender.

Her poems are unflinching, fearless, beautifully written, brave, honest. True.

She does not sugar-coat the unbearable pain of losing a loved one, but in her willingness to give witness to the depths of her loss, she ultimately transcends her grief and embraces the renewal that can only come from howling at despair and shaking a furious fist at the fragility of life.

A catafalco is a raised bier used to support a casket, a coffin, or a body of the deceased during a funeral or a memorial service. In this collection, the catafalco becomes a crucible of poems, bearing witness to love and loss—and the most human of emotions: grief.

The collection is divided into two parts. Part one contains poems about grief and is further divided into four subsections: bereavement, despair, tragedy, and the dying of the light. Part two contains poems about renewal, comfort, transcending sorrow to engage with life again, stronger for having been so utterly broken.

And, while many of the poems in this book speak of personal losses—the death of Snyder’s father, Roy K. Snyder, the untimely death of her beloved husband Marío Colin—Snyder also addresses the collective/universal loss that comes from shared, global tragedies, such as the tsunami and earthquake in Japan, the mutilation of dolphins in the waters near her homeland, the murder of an young, innocent American goat-herder in Redford, TX, on the border between Texas and Mexico, at the hands of US marines on a secret patrol who mistook him for an “undocumented” border-crosser.

The first poem, “No one I know here with me”, sets the tone for what lies ahead:

 

In the dark all the pages look blank, shadow against shadow.

Scarlet lightning fractures the black of my eyelids.

A cephalopod wraps itself around my sternum in fury.

Screams silent in the alienated night recede unheard,

tears stifle in the tactile geometry of textiles.

 

Everything is the same color without light.

Black is not the absence of color, but the presence of all.

 

In “The day the artist died”, she writes about her husband, the gifted artist Marío Colin:

 

Today the artist died.

Drummers drum the dancers’ steps,

firm and heavy beneath the trees.

The dancers dance a prayer.

A black dove leaves a feather at my back door,

another on my front step.

The sky paints itself a heaven.

 

In “Feather of death”, she writes about her father:

 

My mouth won’t form word

I’m not sure about pearly gates

or if there is a better place awaiting

somewhere in some sweet bye & bye

All I see is white blue sky that hurts my eyes

rutted earth packed hard and unforgiving

 

In “Where a crone sits alone”, she writes of the crossroads, the realms of Hecate, the One who rules death and transformation.

 

It’s in the cards on the table in front of her nose.

She distracts herself with the taste of milk tea,

illicit lips pursed against the inside of the wrist.

It’s all there in the card for anyone to see.

Stagnation here. Turmoil there.

Permissiveness everywhere at once.

Excessive reliance on the occult arts, perhaps.

 

She strokes the cards into congruencies.

A Celtoi cross marks the crossroad,

two unparallel lines in a plane.

That least that away. This leads this away.

They converge here, where a crone sits alone, her head

shrouded in smoke black as a raven feather crown.

The moon is awane and cold.

 

In “The Sunday news”, she widens the circle of grief to encompass the universal, collective experiences of loss and outrage that we all share as citizens of planet Earth.

 

Dolphins found shot, slashed stabbed, and missing jaws.

Mutilations and other injuries recorded in recent months.

One found dead near Gaultier hand a hole made by a 9 mm bullet.

Scientists who study marine mammals report four recent strandings

and on a recent Friday, another dolphin dead on Deer Island,

a piece of his jaw removed.

 

In “A wave of a thousand bodies”, she writes of the despair and powerlessness triggered by the horrors of environmental disasters:

 

Earth quake in Japan

(registered in Texas)

Gargantuan waves

Bodies and buildings swept to sea

On shore nuclear melt down

Fuel rods stripped and dry

No water but the excess of sea

Japan assures its people and the world

everything is “contained”

Go, go Godzilla.

 

In “Comfort”, she embraces the possibility of hope and renewal:

 

The orisha brought me to you in a dream

and I found comfort there.


Your absence a longing within my throat,

I walk beside the sweet water,

silent joy etched upon the signpost to freedom.

 

I have on sturdy shoes and good cotton socks.

I find comfort in the memory of your voice.

I see you along every path.

Your presence comes upon me like balm.

 

In “Cinnamon tea”, she writes about survival and the gift of looking back from the vantage point of having loved and been loved and having transcended all the many sorrows that life can bring:

 

When I get older,

and all I know now gone forever from my grasp,

I will tell the young ones who care to hear,

I knew love and love knew me.

Its name was oatmeal,

toast,

and cinnamon tea.

 

In “Mythic sea of yes”, she comes home to herself again, ready to embrace life:

 

A circle of voices keeps rhythm with my strokes—

yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yet again, yes

My feet settle firmly on the night-kissed shore.

 

Snyder’s book offers a rare and stunning glimpse into the private realms of loss and transformation. In Poemas Ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal, the catafalco bears the poet’s sorrow—and ours—and, in doing so, we are better able to trust in the human heart’s capacity to not only mend and endure, but to survive and thrive.

For more information or to buy a signed copy of Poemas Ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal, contact Donna at:  donnajosnyder@gmail.com

Read Meet Mago Contributor Donna Snyder.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Mary Saracino.

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Donna J Snyder
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Thank you, Mary, for such a sensitive, thorough, and beautifully written review of my book. I’m so pleased found my poems worthy and even, perhaps, of use to others seeking a way from personal grief or even a form of existential despair to a place of renewal. I also appreciate the editors for finding a place for this review of my book. All praises and thanks to Mago.

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