» Book Review
Language as Remembrance, Witness, Companion
In June the Labyrinth, by Cynthia Hogue
Red Hen Press, 2017
76 pages, paper, $17.95
Cynthia Hogue’s latest collection from Red Hen Press unfolds around a journey to the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral undertaken as an elegiac pilgrimage. On this journey, Hogue maps a poetic space connecting grief and immortality, presence and immanence, love and loss. These connections demonstrate the power of language as remembrance, witness, and, ultimately, companion.
In June the Labyrinth begins following the death of Hogue’s mother and is dedicated to four of the poet’s friends who died in the subsequent two years of the book’s writing. As the poet begins the journey through the cathedral labyrinth, she transports the reader to an inner labyrinth of voices:
The difference between finding a way
and finding the way
is like that between not knowing
and having forgotten.
The spiraling movement of the labyrinth walk is layered with voices, primarily those of the I-speaker and the figure of the dying Elle, a strong female presence determinedly writing her “book of wisdom” until “she cannot hold her pen.” When Elle calls and a demon answers, Elle knows she is on her own:
This is the crux of her belief:
No one here to fall
back on but herself, she the wild,
and true blue, the only starry night.
Elle walks the labyrinth “meekly above ground / (there is a clearing in her heart). A crunching sound / like wheels on gravel, a whirring / as of flight. A lifetime’s surrender.” The I-speaker, on the other hand, walks the labyrinth casting intuitive petals in the four cardinal directions as if to ward off the inevitability of Elle’s death. In the face of this loss, the speaker’s ritual creates poetically an opening of time into a space layered and timeless where self and other arrive as companions already loved, a place of healing.
With a generosity of spirit, an imaginative embodying of others within a self, and an inclusive carrying of lost beloveds within the human heart, Hogue’s poems demonstrate how language may transmute the experience of grief as habitation; they evidence the way a poem may become a form of visitation, embodiment, and possession which C. D. Wright called being “one with others.”
Hogue’s honed and spare language embraces innovative play with words misread, crossed out, called out, and sounded, giving the collection a vibrant texture. The poem “(“dehors et dedans”),” for example, begins with a fruitful misreading and then carves words out of themselves, a creative strategy that suggests, in this context, how “real” life remains “sliced from unreal” even as “life’s excluding” Elle and the speaker “cannot harbor / her.”
Outside is inside,
I misread Bachelard’s French
imagining Elle belonging when
life’s excluding her.
She will message me,
I think. But I cannot harbor
her. She is inside herself,
sliced from unreal, real,
as no from not.
A hope in the face of devastating loss is that Elle will “message me, I think.” The message is not a sure thing, yet if the speaker puts her mind to it, if she can imagine it, she may hear it. The power of memory and imagination connects the living and the dead. Embodied through Hogue’s language, it becomes a witness to the emotional and spiritual complexity of the grieving process:
being close enough to touch
differed from her distant love,
safely abstracted from presence.
Elle’s goodness found in her forgiveness.
Hogue achieves the flow and syncopation of the book’s startling music through her finesse with line, space, punctuation, and variations of form from tercets, quatrains, sestets and septets, to a hyphenated list, field composition, and prose. A subtle chiming rings through the book’s outer and inner worlds, which connect through sound and Hogue’s own aliveness as a poet.
One feels her urgency in seeking to understand and to reckon with the power of loss and death, particularly a daughter’s loss of her mother. Elle becomes the speaker’s familiar, an inner witness on the journey through a life learning to accept death through forgiveness:
Forgiveness is a labyrinth, a way,
going in this direction and not that,
the ethical route and heart’s root,
the core, of course, riddle of how
to cure the poison of the demon,
that bitterness which
bent her like a bell
until at last she sounded
Cynthia Hogue’s In June the Labyrinth is a stunning and unforgettable book. It is a letting in of grief rather than a letting go. Hogue’s poems demonstrate how one does not recover but rather uncovers and discovers truths about the other’s being in relation to oneself. Ultimately, these truths come to rest in language itself, in the poem embodied as a form of conscious companion.