I should clarify that although I'm Reviews Editor at Vine Leaves, I'm not involved in judging the Vignette Collection Award entries, so I come to each of these chapbooks as fresh as to any other book I review here, and I'll be working my way through the growing collection as new titles are published, kicking off with Christine Tsen's stunning poetry collection, Cellography, pictured here.
If you'll excuse the musical pun, I found the presentation of this collection the perfect overture to its content. The elegant, whimsically embellished cello on the cover, with birds taking flight from the strings (or are they constrained by them?), along with the inventive title, suggests a whole new philosophy blended from music and words.
It comes as no surprise to learn that the poet is also a classical and very active cellist, and although she describes the cello as her muse, and the opening poem serves as a hymn to it, the collection really describes how music of all kinds permeates her life. Multiple instruments appear, from lute, flute, dulcimer and harp, to cricket song, birdsong and even white noise. Nor are her references constrained to classical composers, with John Denver, the Beatles and Neil Diamond popping up in the company of Brahms, Mahler, and Puccini.
Life without music would be unimaginable for Christine Tsen, but you don't have to be musical to enjoy these poems, even if you do find yourself having to look up some of the technical terms, which sit comfortably among the dense richness and rhythm of her phraseology.
Music carries her between the earthly and the ethereal, between death and life, and the divide often seems gauze-thin. Music often seems as essential as breath itself (breath control, or lack of it, features frequently, e.g. in "Diminuendo" and "Alice's Gift"). "Recording Sessions", about the birth of a baby, sees "flowing from your womb ... newborn fountains of song", while in a poem about bereavement, "Manus Opus" describes "that great battle of a last gasp". Dance also creeps in to accompany the music, from graceful ballet to lively rumba.
The moods reflected here range from the poignant "Requiem" and "Le Jardinier", to humour in "Recitative", regretting the lack of cello-like curves in her own body, and in the sensual "Symphonymphony" ("Desire between my legs - / A cello / or is it?") which culminates in "a blind rush of infinite quavers". I also enjoyed "Sodden Kisses", where she self-deprecatingly remarks "Although I do not call myself a post at this stage, / I do have a bardic propensity towards sex and death / as well as wheelbarrows". In "A Mermaid's Longing", she craves a bath rather than a shower - one of many poems in which water yields sensuous powers. Water, foam, rain all drench characters, just as floral perfumes intoxicate, so does the cloying sweetness implied by the pervasive bumblebee.
Her descriptions of nature are usually as light and ethereal as drifts of music, the butterflies, birds and blossoms as fragile and fleeting as a musical note held, or as a breath of air. There is a dichotomy asserting the transience of life - at one point she mourns the lack of "life's encore" when talking about the loss of her father in "Manus Opus" - while also finding in music a key to immortality, transcending earthly life. Yet there is a distressing difference for her between the freedom of birdsong and "my own voice muted, silenced by life's blows" in "Woodthrush".
After this intense tour sharing so many personal hopes, joys, losses and fears, it is neat and touching that the final poem is a tribute to "The Audience of a Small Concert", likening the collection to a recital that she has performed just for us. I picture her taking a bow, as she observes that "the real music is in you / and your being here how precious the gift of listening".
Christine Tsen, thank you for this delightful, rich and multi-faceted collection. May there be many encores.