Kelly Cherry’s new collection of poems, Relativity: A Point of View, is her second book of poems and the third book of her authorship. Her first book, a novel, Sick and Full of Burning, received critical acclaim. Her second book, Lovers and Agnostics, was her first collection of poems. Born in Louisiana, with her childhood spent in New York and Virginia, Cherry currently resides in England. A Bread Loaf Fellowship winner in 1975, she says of her writing,I’m concerned with the shape of ideas in time: the dynamic configuration a moral dilemma makes, cutting through a novel like a river through rock; the way a philosophical statement bounces against the walls of a poem, like an echo in a canyon. A writer, poet, or novelist, wants to create a contained, complete landscape in which time flows freely and naturally. The poems are where I live. It’s in poetry that thought and time most musically counterpoint each other, and I like a world in which the elements sing.
Divided into five sections, Relativity offers a poetry formal in style and form and philosophical in ideas. In it, Cherry offers thirty-five poems and a prefatory poem. In the prefatory poem, she resurrects the longstanding writer’s metaphor of poems as people. Employing classical forms, often in modern variations, the poems of this collection are a poetry of the intellect.
The first section is introduced with a T. S. Eliot epigraph which is the last line from the second part of “The Waste Land”: “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.” With this epigraph for direction, Cherry devotes her attention in the nine poems which comprise this section to women. The first poem, entitled “Lt. Col. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova,” is for the first woman to orbit the earth. In it, Cherry uses striking imagery to suggest that this first orbit was an introduction to knowledge of the same magnitude as that gained from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the biblical garden of Eden; however, the poet updates the fruit into an orange, not an apple.
The poem “Earth” demonstrates Cherry’s command of both language and form. A Shakespearean sonnet, “Earth” becomes the metaphor for a woman’s body. “Dora” offers the metaphor of woman as bird, whose hands are like birds’ wings, but which in death are stilled, making her death “. . . a dull retort/ in a short/ hard and grained/ cold dead/ verse of visibility/ birds of lead.” “Curie” continues the concentration in this section on women, both famous and unknown, describing Madame Curie’s discovery of radium as “A modest miracle, but one/ admirable in a woman.” Concluding this first section, Cherry offers “Jezebel,” “Joan,” “The Melancholy Muse,” and “Self-Portrait,” continuing her emphasis on women. In these poems, however, she allows a subtle modernity to creep in. By introducing both sexuality and a sense of fatality, she seems to suggest a possible duality. By doing so, she also sets the stage for the next section.
The second section is also prefaced with an epigraph, this time by John Philip Kemble, a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century actor of considerable talent and fame as a tragedian. His “Perhaps it was right to dissemble your love./ But—why did you kick me downstairs?” sets the tone for this section. Dealing with past, shared love, this section presents seven poems which—as the first section concerned the single woman—concern the woman as half of a union.
The first poem in this section, aptly entitled “Transformations,” introduces this concern with the union, the relationship. The concern is continued in “The Tent,” where the author sets the time in the prehistoric period, simplifying...
(The entire section is 1553 words.)