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Poetry can be intimidating and difficult to “get.” It can evoke the same feelings many of us have toward contemporary art — we don’t always understand it, and it can make us feel shut out, like outsiders to an in-joke. Poetry as one of human nature’s more obtuse endeavors, can have the same effect. Ayala Sella’s first published book of poems, entitled Soliloquies of a Crosswalker (2011), published by Wasteland Press, works to contradict the notion that you must have a deep interest, appreciation and knowledge of poetry before reading it.
Soliloquies, furthermore, is actually a page-turner. It’s the type of book you intend to pick up for a moment, perhaps because the image on the cover grabs your attention; it’s an old family snapshot taken of the author by her mother, a grainy portrait of a 3-year-old Ayala, a large German Shepherd and her father, all lounging on a picnic blanket with a handgun resting across dad’s exposed midriff. After opening Soliloquies, and passing the mysteriously lovely dedication to “you, at last,” you realize you have been reading the little book for much longer than you intended to. I picked it up for first time planning to leaf through, get a sense of what it was and where it went, only to realize that I had read all of it. It is also the kind of book you should read twice before you consider it read.
Ayala Sella, born in Israel, grew up in the United Sates, and now travels back and forth between the two countries, creating lives in each place that seem independent of the other. Soliloquies, made up of poems Sella wrote between 1995 and 2011, emphasizes the nomadic nature of her adulthood; Soliloquy, “the act of talking while or as if alone,” and crosswalker, together create a lovely image of a pedestrian on a solitary journey. The title implies that Sella’s poems are self-narrations, and from those exclamations, sentences, and words we speak out loud to ourselves in the absence of others, she creates concise poems. One hundred and seven pages long, containing more than one hundred poems, Soliloquies is a book by a prolific author, and the product of a great deal of effort. Well edited and organized, a book in four parts, her poems are sparsely worded, direct in tone and quotidian in subject.
In the first two sections of her book, titled “but nothing else happens” and “and all she does is smirk,” Ayala Sella has compiled the type of poems that describe a simple moment or situation. With only a few lines, and with poems forty words or less, she evokes images of sharp poignancy. These two sections are snapshots of life and contain poems that tell of the ordinary things that compose it. Her work conveys the highs and lows the everyday. “A mix of the sweet and the sour,” John McCaffrey writes in a recent interview with the author, adding that Ayala shares an “underlying message that the harshness of life need not consume its beauty.”
In “defeat” she writes with a tinge of mysterious sadness:
I have never known defeat before now,
although I thought I did
hundreds of times before
In “a perfect match” she describes a moment of idiosyncratic love:
today it was your dirty
that you left
by my bed
they weren’t a perfect match
and when I woke up
I was happy.
Stepping away from her descriptions of personal moments and memories, in the latter half of “and all she does is smirk” Sella explores less obvious narratives. She offers us small descriptions that remain slightly beyond the grasp of our understanding, but that somehow feel within the realm of our knowing. Though we miss the specifics because of Sella’s abstract use of words, we feel them nonetheless through the tone and attitude of her voice.
In “dosage of tiger” she writes:
I can never
make it part of my
reality even when the
rest is the imagination
The poem “the fourth leg,” is written with the same puzzling but intriguing tone.
We are all
like a Degas
all of us
drunk and stoned
and not knowing
the fourth leg is
The third section of Ayala’s book, aptly titled “from another direction,” contains Sella’s longer, more serious, and strongest poems, most of which are set in Israel. Sella’s poems about living in Israel, being Jewish, and her long absence from the country convey a strong connection with the place she lives and the culture that surrounds her. It’s this life, rather than the one she leads in Brooklyn, that she seems most connected with, as she describes in detail scenes that she observes and people she talks to. These poems encompass the society surrounding her, and they feel less self-referential and indulgent.
In a section of the poem “java,” she references sad remembrances of history:
and buying some
coffee is an
with a number
on her left
Working as a hotel receptionist in Israel, she humorously and rebelliously describes, in a section of “cats at the holiday village,” the Americans who pass through:
and then this Christ worshipper says
you’re a mess
you’re a troublemaker
which needless to say
i take as a compliment
and wonder what the Lord
himself would’ve thought.
The impressive manipulation of words into a vivid image is what can make poetry such an amazing and unique medium. Poems are descriptions, and we tend to think of descriptions as the tedious pages of a book we have to wade through in order to arrive at a more eventful place in the plot. Good poets, like Sella, with only a handful of words, give us great descriptions that linger long after we have finished reading the poem itself. I hope Ayala Sella publishes another volume of poems in sixteen years, a hundred more pages of those things she mumbles to herself as she wanders through the streets of her cross-cultural life.
Ayala Sella’s Soliloquies of a Crosswalker was published this year by Wasteland Press.
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