YOU ASK ME TO TALK ABOUT THE INTERIOR
by Carolina Ebeid
Noemi Press, 75 pages
reviewed by Claire Oleson
Poetry is often in danger of being understood as purely conceptual material in need of processing and interpretation in order to become meaningful or real. It can be easy, after wading through stanzas, to lose a grip on time and place and the sensation of occupying a body. However, despite the ethereality and distance from reality poetry often possesses, Caroline Ebeid has proven that it can also be used to ground and remind us of the physical rather than simply blur or distract from it. In her collection You Ask Me to Talk About The Interior, Ebeid employs a sort of “bodily language,” flexing smoothly between word and body until the two seem irredeemably tied. I would argue that Ebeid, and this collection in particular, works to close the distance between words and what they mean, bringing the signified and signifier together on the physical stage of the paper.
In the opening poem “Something Brighter Than Pity,” a persona spends “hours folding & unfolding” the learned forms of “swans in origami”. Because this picture is the first detailed in the book, the entirety of the collection to follow is framed within this image of creating the physical body of a swan using paper. To suggest Ebeid’s poems themselves are any different, any less bodily and reminiscent of life than these swans, would require entirely ignoring the suggestions of this opening poem and image. The body, even the “sternums” of these birds, is called up into the world out of paper while still requiring both interpretation and a certain empathy to understand.
The care and bodily empathy suggested in the meticulous and time-consuming construction of the birds is soon flipped when the speaker in “Something Brighter than Pity” encounters the body of a dead dog and calls it a “Pale glyph/ of dog, washed still, unferal”. In this moment, the speaker has brought us back down into symbology and language, turning a dead dog into a letter and perhaps reminding us of the paper which underlies everything from the deceased canine and the swans to the voice of the speaker. In this initial poem, Ebeid has quickly and efficiently woven the attention of her readers both outside of and back into language, allowing them to feel the transformations of words into and out of bodies without sacrificing the poem’s status as something at least partially conceptual and theoretical.
Later in the collection, the poem “Soul out of a Magician’s Hat” similarly confronts the paper-thin border Ebeid both erects and dismantles between language and what it creates in her work. The persona in this piece expresses:
My gratitude for your sketch of the hand
that brushes the hair;
for the fingers that crack open
the brown egg. And for the one hand
Again, Ebeid’s poem begins with hailing a representation of life—here, it’s the drawing of a hand where, in “Something Brighter Than Pity,” it was an origami animal. Both pieces seemingly begin with something existing a few steps outside of life and the literal, but soon encroach into what is undeniably real and physical. The drawn hand goes on from brushing hair in a picture to cracking eggs, perhaps morphing out of representation and into some form of autonomy and utility.
Ebeid’s use of line breaks, both throughout her collection and in this poem in particular, facilitate multiple understandings of her words in a way that allows them to make these turns from hypothetical to literal. For instance, the lines “for the fingers that crack open/ the brown egg” feature a line-break which forces a pause that permits for the momentary belief that it might be the fingers themselves which “crack open” and enter into a changed state rather than the egg.
Near the end of “Soul Out of a Magician’s Hat” the persona communicates gratitude again, saying:
Thank you for the hand that sharpens
the pencil, it writes an I & a thou.
The “written” language appears in italics, suggesting distance and distinction (at least within the world of the poem) between what exists and what is created, i.e. the hand and what it writes. Later, the word “I” resurfaces as “an eyelash on the page” now physical but also seemingly accidental, perhaps suggesting that identity is both something more physical and literal as well as more paltry and disregardable than may have been previously believed. It’s also worth noting that this eyelash, while clearly physical in a way the word “I” is not, is also in existence on the surface of a page in a way that resembles a letter or a word or the glyph of a dead dog washed ashore to be found— all betray an intention to be read.
In another poem of Ebeid’s entitled “[Whereas What Came Before]” a similar sort of physicality is given to a word, this time however, the word is given an entire personification rather than a partial attribution to a self. The persona explains:
coming back to the door
at noon where I leave
out more alfalfa, water
& a mound of salt.
Here, “Ought” appears as something alive and sentient as well as lingual and interpretive. The poem exists in the “Meantime” of larger events, appearing as an aside to something larger and more crucial. Because of this, “Ought” is able to act as a sort of premonition and ominous visitor whom is not directly seen but whom the narrator still seems to care for by leaving it food and water as if it were a pet. “[Whereas What Came Before]” depicts language not only as something physical, but also as something living, even going so far as to show it partially disconnected from and independent of the persona who spoke or thought it.
Throughout You Ask Me to Talk About The Interior, Caroline Ebeid folds and unfolds her created bodies of words, showing us their wings, hands, and intentions in new and fascinating light. She also guides her readers through the loss of physical status—showing bodies as words and language as potent enough in and of itself to suggest and depict life.
In this collection, Ebeid’s language bends between real and fictitious, literal and hypothetical, and physical and ethereal, able to deliver its signified and signifier together and united both on and within the page. You Ask Me to Talk About The Interior is a work which is at once aware of its existence as a book of poems that contain associative and surreal moments while also being eager to show where language gives way to something close, personal, and undeniably part of reality.
Cleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Claire Oleson is a student and writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s currently studying English and Creative Writing at Kenyon College. She’s an avid fan of books, bread, and trying to win the hearts of all felines, regardless of how cantankerous they may be. Her work has been published by the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, Siblíní Art and Literature journal, Newfound Journal, NEAT Magazine, Werkloos Magazine, and Bridge Eight Magazine, among others.