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Poems by Nicelle Davis, illustrations by Cheryl Gross.

Lowbrow Press, October 2011.

If you haven’t watched the book trailer for Circe at YouTube yet, you should. There you will get an excellent sense of the tone and presence of Nicelle Davis’s individual poems in Circe: strong narrators masked in myth; an oozing, pervasive violence above a sea of beautiful, lyric sadness that is carried throughout the book. The book begins, “First time I read the Odyssey I was seven, / gluing feathers to my arms, and suckling chicken / bones to understand operations of blame.” Toward the end of Circe, Davis writes, “Sorrow // can be delicious.” Davis creates characters who are hungry for the flavor of sorrow, who will consume themselves and their loved ones for the taste of it. The book trailer will also treat you to many of Cheryl Gross’s illustrations for Circe but with a touch of color and animation. Their jagged nature matches Davis’s tone perfectly—even the roundest of Gross’s lines are drawn with heavy-hearted aggression. Poignant music by Karl Preusser takes the trailer to the level of art-in-and-of-itself. It’s a lovely way to spend five minutes and thirty-one seconds and directing you there allows me to spend the rest of this review on how Circe functions as a whole.

While the individual poems in Circe function as stand-alone lyric works, they come together to form a very clear narrative. To say this narrative revolves around a love triangle would be true but also reductive. To be sure, Nicelle Davis makes a modern day love triangle of Circe, Odysseus and Penelope. In modernizing the myth, Davis has stripped Circe of her goddess stature by giving her all the shame our modern world assigns to witchy mistresses of married men. Davis gives Circe a son, then takes her son and gives him to the care of Penelope. In his place, Davis gives Circe three siren sisters born of Circe’s resulting madness. What seems to be a straight-forward love triangle in Book II of Circe, soon becomes a many-pointed star as Circe seeks (often destructively) sexual love, motherly love, sisterly love and self love.

The siren sisters within Circe’s psyche epitomize love’s destructive nature. The Sad Siren cannot experience sexual love without hurting herself or her lover: “Every bite taken of him, I bit two from my / own flesh.” The Angry Siren cannot love her sister without hurting men: “She was all I had of home and he kicked / in and out her doors; for that loss I pro- / long every sailor’s hurt.” The Little Siren cannot love herself without hurting her sisters. In order to become what she most wants to be the Sea Witch gives the Little Siren “the face of / a swordfish to impel / my sisters with.” Under the sirens’ spell, Circe believes one cannot love without hurting and in some ways she is right. The poem “The Recipe for Sirens” paired with “The Body is Two Doors” describes giving birth as evisceration. This primal scene that is often the origin of motherly love cannot be accurately described without violence. Yet Circe eventually learns that loving doesn’t require adding to the sorrow inherent in love. In fact, it requires moving beyond destruction. In “On the Day Circe Didn’t Kill Penelope”, Circe watches her own son in the arms of Penelope: “it looks as though light itself sews the two / of them together.” Circe’s murderous jealousy becomes a deeply sorrowful peace. By the end of Book VI, Circe is able to tell her son: “enjoy sadness, but don’t live there.” So when we read Book VII’s postcript, “Page one. Again,” we can better enjoy the reread having learned something about navigating the pleasures of sorrow.

It is fitting that Homer’s Odyssey depicts both Circe and Penelope at looms, weaving. I see Nicelle Davis in this role as well, weaving together the many strands of Circe’s heartache into a sense of wholeness, a tapestry of beauty and sorrow. In a 2009 interview with PANK, Nicelle Davis describes a different project, Becoming Judas, with: “Eventually there are no clear dividing lines. There is no one to blame, nothing to judge. All is reconciled to love.” This is an ambitious writerly obsession capable of wearing many masks and Circe does this well. Circe is a densely woven book worth many readings.

Lisa McCool-Grime, assistant editor, A CAPPELLA ZOO