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Stacie Cassarino’s Zero at the Bone is an emotionally devastating collection of poems examining the complexities of loss and desire. Winner of the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, Cassarino asserts herself as a poet of great skill in this debut collection. She deftly moves between the precision and sterility of the natural world to the messy and complicated intimacy of lost love.
Places and names are of utmost importance in Cassarino’s poetry. Whether she is in New York, the Midwest, Alaska or the Northwest, places become characters, and the landscape that defines those places is described in great detail. She uses the precise vocabulary of plants and animals (trillium, warbler, fiddleheads) to emphasize the messiness of human existence. How does one define desire, love, or loss? These are questions Cassarino wants to find the language to answer.
In “Midwest Eclogue,” we see vulnerability in the speaker as she attempts, and fails, to name her surroundings.
I don’t know the names for things
in the prairie, where the expanse
of light and the hissing of tall stalks
makes me move slowly…
Later, this confusion becomes palpable when the speaker is attempting to define desire and all of its complicated components.
I’m surrounded by grasslands
in every direction. The sound
is a clamoring, because desire
is never singular and we want it
this way. We want it easy…
…Here, the wind—
dispersal of seed and story. Love,
there are things I cannot name.
Cassarino effortlessly mirrors the natural world to the personal in many of the poems in this collection. The poet also brings us back, continually, to the body, and the way touch works to heal and destroy: “I tasted the blood on a woman’s fingers/and knew it was me…” and “When we were inside each other/at the same time, I kept my eyes open.”
Divided into three sections, the collection almost loses momentum in the middle as the speaker attempts to detach from emotion. Cassarino’s focus becomes clinical in an effort to examine isolation and abandonment from an external perspective. She offers us beautiful meditations on states of being, rather than focusing on emotional upheaval. However, the undercurrent of emotion flows strongly underneath. It is as if Cassarino is balancing ever-so-delicately on the precipice of revelation.
When Cassarino achieves a revelation, the poems are positively magnificent. “In the Kitchen” is a beautiful and stark poem that examines the way sensory memory can strip away everything that keeps the speaker secure in her isolation.
It’s right before you drive away:
our limbs still warm with sleep,
coffee sputtering out, the north
wind, your hips pressing me
hard against the table. I like it hard
because I need to remember this.
I want to say harder…
Sometimes my desire scares me.
Sometimes I watch football
and think: four chances
is enough to get there. But
we don’t have helmets.
I want to say harder,
I can take it, but
there’s no proof I can.
Cassarino returns over and over again to this idea of desire, and to its counterpart, loss. There is a war happening between the mind and body in this effort to define and understand what is not tangible.
The final section of the collection is a culmination of these attempts at reconciliation. The brilliant “Hole Where No Sound Lives” is a lengthy poem that moves skillfully among the past and present, lover and family, childhood and adulthood, death and, ultimately, awakening. The speaker reveals her sexual awakening in this poem: “I remember Death Valley,/how you were in my future while my boyfriend’s/desperate fingers got it all wrong in our tent./I was the West, once, and even then/I was creating the memory of you.” This poem leads us to the place we, and the speaker, have been yearning to reach all along.
I must have desired someone you aren’t…
I’ve never wanted to kill anything, except
this sadness, having to explain to Grandma, who’s watched
too many Jerry Springers, that it’s not like that.
And she asks: then what was it like?
And there is only the delay of windshield wipers,
and I’m only now beginning to forget you…
and sometimes Grandma wants to understand
how we bury our loves alive.
Zero at the Bone is an enthralling first collection that is superbly written, and commands the reader’s attention along a purposeful path. Stacie Cassarino is a poet that understands humanity, and will not shy away from showing us just how fragile we are.
ZERO AT THE BONE
By Stacie Cassarino
New Issues Press
Trade Paperback, $15.00, 91pp