Ruth Foley on Sonya Vatomsky’s My Heart in Aspic
Sonya Vatomsky’s first chapbook, My Heart in Aspic, is a fusillade of grief, a collection that hits the reader hard and fast, with few pauses for catching a breath. Vatomsky is not shy about the fact that she does not revise her poetry, saying in a recent interview on the Lumen blog that she works on a poem for a maximum of thirty minutes before letting it loose to sink or float on its own. “Poetry is, to me, the crystallization of a fleeting moment,” she says, and writing professors everywhere take cover or take up arms.
That spontaneity, however, serves the poems in My Heart in Aspic quite well. It creates raw spots, places where revision might have stripped the poems of their astringency. It lets important phrases drop like stones and sit where they lie, while revision might have pushed to expand those moments, maybe even so much so that they become the machine that drives the poem. Instead, the poems move like grief itself. Take these lines from the title poem:
I’ve been soup
that charred black to the pot, I’ve made the mistake of listening
when I should have cured
I salted for flavor and not against ghosts
I am Russian
Here’s the thing about grief: it steals its way into unlikely places, and it takes what it wants. Would editing have inserted commas into that list? Broken the clauses into sentences? Expanded something moving—like that meaty, wondrous scrap of a phrase, “not against ghosts”—into a motif so large it risked taking over the poem? It would be remiss of us to not consider that possibility. The poem created by that process might be a great poem. But it wouldn’t be this poem, because this poem exists as a momentary expression of a momentary impulse, and losing it would be a pity.
Luckily, Vatomsky has some very solid sonic and rhythmic impulses as well. In “A girl’s guide to adventuring,” she takes on not just the rhythms of a walk in the woods, albeit a slightly manic one, but also the sounds: “I got my axe and it’s into the thicket, / legs scratched up bloody & nothing but blueberries to eat for months.” You can practically hear the twigs breaking underfoot, followed by a step out into the soft pine duff. In “Mouth-off (1),” she juxtaposes round, soft sounds with images of horror, which raises the tension in the very first lines: “You knock on the door / and my throat fills with ghosts,” and later in the same poem, she builds a sense of arid loneliness with short vowels: “Some tiny, half-thing meant for one sweet breath exists, / looks around; then stillness.” The speaker is completely bereft, and the sonic control over lines like these adds to our understanding of that loss.
The lines here are often long—so long that many of the poems look like prose poems—and that, too, helps carry the notion of grief. These poems often feel like they have spilled onto the page of their own volition, and in some ways I suppose they have. They arrive without warning, without any sense of internal censorship, and invite a reader to take them as they are. They are not always beautiful, but they often are, and are lightly sprinkled with pieces of hope, as in “the back of the closet is an optimistic / place” (“Ouroboros”). Sometimes, instead, she gives us practicality, as in lines like “We do our best, or we don’t” (“My heart in aspic”), which lets us stand for a moment in the knowledge that there are definite limits on what we can and cannot control. In this way, Vatomsky gives us flashes of strength, of an understanding of power even in the helplessness of mourning, which allows us to ride with the speaker in the poems through what, if unrelenting, would be an overwhelming, overturning grief. In these brief glimpses of possibility, as in her quick bursts of humor (“How long can you lick a wound before / the taste of blood no longer scares you— / I’m asking for a friend” she says in “Spring Flowers”), she gives readers a handhold. Maybe it’s better to call it a lifeline, something to hang onto while we travel with her, something that makes us realize we have nowhere else we’d rather be than in this specific moment with this specific poet.
Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her work appears in numerous web and print journals, includingAntiphon, The Bellingham Review, and Sou’wester. She is the author of two chapbooks, Dear Turquoise (dancing girl press) and Creature Feature (ELJ Publications), and serves as Managing Editor for Cider Press Review.