Ann Cefola's new book-length poem, Free Ferry on Upper Hand Press, is about the secrecy behind the development of plutonium alongside poems about growing up in 1960s suburban America. The plutonium and family pieces are separate but Cefola creates a matrix between them which explores the impact of scientific development and cold-war fears on living families. Cefola drew material and inspiration from technical publications and her father-in-law, who worked on the plutonium project.
The plutonium story runs along the bottom of the book's pages--Cefola calls this the "bottom narrative" which interacts with the more traditionally displayed family poems on each page. The architecture works like an assemblage, where ideas from the plutonium fragments are collaged next to relevant family stories. This structure gives you all sorts of opportunities to read the poems horizontally and vertically. Hot and cold contrasts are explored, dichotomies between the vibrant and the flat, intellectual science transposed next to suburban parties. Two stories are being told at once, woven together and they ultimately merge.
Cefola investigates emotional exposure and chemical exposure, tenderness and brittleness, disasters both emotional and physical, and rivalries between siblings and poems. The family poems themselves are a vibrant survey of 60s Americana: television (and love of TV dinners), dishwashers, vacations, neighborhood lawns and personalities.
When Cefola uses details, they are always heavy with extra significance, like the wine glasses in the cabinet stacked as if in the middle of a can-can dance, or the idea of "children like lava" over the death of a dog, or Ed Sullivan pronouncing 'show' as 'shoe." This reminded me of Sonny & Cher's first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show where Sullivan mispronounced Cher's name as 'Chir.'
And then there's a scientific formula printed in all its glory at the climax of the book. The ending leaves us with the smell of firs and the desire to protect all that has been explored, the physical and emotional vulnerabilities, the fireflies.
There is no other poet like Cefola. Her tight, article-free lines zero in on ideas like a microscope and the style of brevity intensifies the action. She sprinkles in italics where ideas almost glow.
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