Motherhood Literature + Art

to cleave by Barbara Rockman

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Review by Kimberly Bowcutt


To cleave: A contranym, “cleave” is metamorphosis and movement, blessed beginnings and violent ends. It is complicated. Barbara Rockman’s newest collection of poetry to cleave is a contemplative exploration of how love is sustained in an incongruent world.

This collection can be enjoyed line by line. In an interview with Miriam Sagan, Rockman says that to her:

relationship to the line is an ongoing exploration…my lines tend to be fairly short which allows me, and I suppose the reader, to readily see and feel into the kernel of their meaning. When I aim to create a breathless rush of energy and emotion, I lengthen the line and pack it with image until it exhausts itself.

Rockman’s ability to employ imagery, mood, and cadence creates a sense of mercurial motion. A vivid example of this occurs in “While She Slept, Her Husband Made Chai.” Here the speaker explores the word’s complicated connotations, “to cleave:   crack   splinter stick fast to // ” (24, Line 1) and also, “all over the house flies settled   little clove flies / …cloven child… // clove darts into orange flesh / that pleasure! a whole / language of the cloven / the cleaved” (24, Lines 13-18).

Several poems in this collection reference the works of painter Georgia O’Keefe; her paintings explore the nuances of color and shape and the limned border between them. In “Letter from Georgia O’Keefe to Alfred Stieglitz on Seeing His Photograph of Her Hands” the speaker says, “…Hands at the tips of my wings, Alfred. / How you splayed my fingers, / insisted I caress the absent forelock, / empty sockets, each stone molar, / imagining the horse’s rough tongue. /” (25, Lines 10-15). O’Keefe uses the medium of paint; Rockman employs her well-chosen words and images to probe clefts, empty spaces, and hidden places in one’s life and loves.

Rockman incorporates white space into the text as a painter would her brush. Blank spaces between images serve as unifiers in some poems and disrupters in others. Elements of cleft poetry, cleft sentences, and tri-alliterative work are woven into the poems in clever ways. In “While She Slept, Her Husband Made Chai,” we see an example of this:

late kitchen      dim kitchen
black kitchen she’d blunder
into walls     while he slept // (24, Lines 6-8)

Well-placed words are joined in unexpected ways. With impactful resonance, Rockman fuses the images of nature and the human body. In “Snow Cave,” there is “sun nudging its orange ball / between my knees…/” (3, Lines 13-14). The poem “Three Peaches on a White Plate” pops with vivid anthropomorphic imagery, “beside the tulips, / whose fingers, fisted for days, / fly open in a sprawl of red-dappled, / double-jointed wrists / and flushed palms. /” (4, Lines 1-5).

Alliteration, assonance, and anaphora control cadence, such as in “Even in Jungle Heat, a Red Leaf Falls,” where the egret’s “sibilant neck, s upon s—bird more air than night. / White trail I might slalom and sing, undulate. Do I overstate // that grace lit a route from grief?” (12, Lines 21-23); and in “Dream Ode to the Sleep of Long Ago” where “Wind witching wrappers… // (31, Line 3) …sand-crusted and sunburnt, / hosed down, fed and fabled: //” (31, Lines 15-16).

“Reverie on the Frayed World” complements the cover art by Kate McGloughlin and leaves the reader with a sense of reconciliation about the contradictory forces that have been explored throughout the collection:

When my small daughter studied the roiled clouds
and spied a snatch of blue at their center, she said,
God’s Room. Daily, I walk a reckoning
With what prayer and poem can do. (56, Lines 6-9)

Barbara Rockman is the author of Sting and Nest: Poems, winner of the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. She teaches writing at Santa Fe Community College and at Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families. Her poetry has appeared in Bellingham Review, Southern Humanities Review, CALYX Journal, Cimarron Review, A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, and Nimrod International Journal.


to cleave: poems by Barbara Rockman
University of New Mexico Press, 2019, $18.95 paper
ISBN 9780826360755

Kimberly Bowcutt lives in Orange County, California. She is currently an M.F.A. student at Chapman University. She is a Developmental Editor specializing in memoir and fiction books for publication. She is mom to 5 children and 3 grandchildren.







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