January Read of the Month: “Second Bloom,” by Anya Krugovoy Silver

Anya Krugovoy Silver

Reviewed by Susana H. Case

Here are poems about happiness, love, spirituality, and yes, metastatic cancer as well. And here is an aesthetics of integration of the transcendental with the all-too-corporeal requirements of life with a fatal illness. Anya Krugovoy Silver is a “metastatic breast cancer thriver,” she says in her back-cover bio by way of introducing herself and her fourth book. But there is so much more than that to her poetry.

“I clasp happiness while it exists,” (“Almond Blossoms,” line 14) she writes but then turns the focus from herself to an ICU nurse who works with those most sick, and, in her afternoons, drives around to photograph almond trees, trees that “bloom so briefly.” This is the nature of her eye and ear: Blooming and time are themes throughout.

“I don’t know why I’m still alive,” Silver writes in “Cape May at Dusk” (line 5). Yet her poem suggests she does know, that in an effort to make the best use of limited time as she can, she has not yet completed her search: “I should have been thinking of holiness / and trying to find it—” (lines 15-16) is the regret voiced in a poem for shopping, thumbing through popular magazines, listening to pop music. In fact, Ecclesiastes 7:3 is one of her epigraphs: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.”

Silver references the Psalms for comfort (“Exile”) and asks Al Quddus, one of the ninety-nine names of Allah, as she explains in her epigraph, to heal her. The four advents are the titles of four sequential poems at the beginning of the second part of her book, which shifts to more religious allusions. She recognizes the irony in “Holy Saturday, 1945,” contrasting the gassing of Maria Skobsova at Ravensbrük with singing the hymn, “Give thanks to the Lord… / for he is good: for his mercy endures forever” (lines 22-23).

Some extraordinary, complicated, and elegant metaphors or similes appear in these pages. In “Getting Used to It,” for example, Silver writes:

Hearing about death is like eating salsa—
at first, you order it mild, then go spicier
and spicier. Finally, not even the hottest pepper,
bitten right through the middle, is likely to make you cry. (lines 10-13)

Wonderful use of sound is also on display. In “The Wild Swan Geese,” we have “flock,” “squawking,” “black,” “implacable,” “shriek,” “back,” and “geese,” all meshed together seamlessly in a modern sonnet.

There is wry humor to some of Silver’s writing, a part of her voice that is most salient in the first part of Second Bloom. She notes “to access me” means “to puncture me with a needle” (“There are Times,” lines 2-3). At a “Department Meeting,” that regular event dreaded by academics everywhere, at the mention of cancer, attention quickly turns to the budget. And she is so very tempted, despite having been told by another poet that “[i]t’s no longer possible… / to symbolize death with falling leaves” (“Things That Do Not Fade” lines 1-2). “My pancreas has turned anarchist,” she laments in “Grape Popsicle” (line 2).

Underneath the wit, there is ownership of her anger at suffering (“To a Healthy Friend,” lines 12-14):

Do you think I want your dish-rag pity
wrung all over my lap? Your cat eye comfort?


Tell you what, Leave the suffering to us.
You’re not invited. Eat pound cake
till your buckle bursts. Lose everything.

“And by the way, fuck you,” Silver inserts into “How to Talk to a Sick Woman” (line 9), a set of instructions for the reactions of others, wanting neither praise nor pity.

There’s more of her family, in particular her son, husband, and father, in the third section of Second Bloom. In “Psalm 137 for Noah,” Silver overlays the theme of exile from the original Psalm 137 onto the “strange land” of her illness (lines 7-11):

I wanted your infant caresses, your fists clasped
round my neck. I craved you, though you were born
in the wake of my illness, my dim prognosis.
I was selfish: I willed you this woe, this world.
You inherited exile for my sake.

When I think of the fourth and last section of this collection, I think of detail—the poet amassing as much of it as she can while she is here: the blues of velvet slippers, an ice blue prom dress, or flowers, as in “Blue Hydrangeas” (lines 1-6):

The way they shade from milky celadon
to indigo, the summer afternoon blue
of them, grounded tugged-down cumuli.
Their swaggery mob-cap profusion,
the generosity with which one or two
will fill a vase with hue and height.

And then there is the green of a dress that, worn with a fake fur shawl and kitten heels, illuminates the woman behind the poetry, the one who insists upon finding enjoyment in the smallest of things (“Woman in a Green Dress, lines 5-12):

Spray my hair up on the big rollers.
Shellac my nails Big Apple.

Scratch under my age, I’m still young,
in love with girlhood and prospect.

Trim that dress low, off the shoulder,
sheen around my hips, seamed hose.

I’m a bower, rosemary, cockatoo.
Dances conjure in my shoes.

So yes, there is illness, but there is poetry, art, and fun. Silver pays homage to various paintings, to pleasures like dancing, even to the hula hoop. “Love the ridiculous,” she writes (“How to Hula Hoop,” line 1). And about those flowers briefly abloom: “happiness / is a decision each of us has made, / without even discussing it” (“Late Summer,” lines 12-14). The roses are in second bloom; they “know what’s coming” (line 9). Truly, what better decision can anyone make than to bloom and be happy? Silver ends the final poem of her collection with the lines, “To bloom is so foolish / that it must be wisdom.” (“August,” lines 11-12); so she blooms in these poems, a book full of her sagacity and talent.

Silver is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Second Bloom (Cascade Books, 2017).  Her previous three books were published with the Louisiana State University press, including From Nothing (LSU, 2016).  She has been published in numerous journals and anthologies such as Best American Poetry 2016 and Poetry and Medicine.  She was named Georgia Poet of the Year in 2015.  Her work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, and as an Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day.  She is Professor of English at Mercer University, and lives in Macon, Georgia, with her husband and son.

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