Breath that is Birth and Death
My Heart in Aspic, Sonya Vatomsky
Porkbelly Press, 2015
Available on the Porkbelly Press Etsy store.
Sonya Vatomsky’s new chapbook is dished up in an attractive 5x5 inch frame with the title, My Heart in Aspic in black wine spilled against a tomato red background. Vatomsky invites us to a dinner party where guests’ tongues are unwound by the truth of recipes that communicate directly to the palate through the tales that have gone into their renditions and transformations. Vatomsky offers My Heart in Aspic—the literal muscle of emotion served for consumption. Yet, to feel emotion, we cannot just eat the heart with a fork and knife. The best way to the heart is through the stomach and through the folklore and fairytales that hibernate within old recipes.
In “Mouth Off (II),” she spins a classic game:
Pulling teeth like flower petals
And then what
Loves me not
And then what
What then do we do with an answer of either loves me or loves me not? We can play the game of love me, love me not, but when we play it with teeth—with those bones that connect us to our central nervous system and enable us to consume meat—we end on:
An even number an even number an even number
And then what
There are no question marks, only statements and although the game of narrative has given us an answer, it has not given us the next narrative. Even when the narrative is given, there are still unknowns.
In “Folk Tune Up” we meet Ivan and Koschei, two characters from Russian folklore, along with a duck and some other animals who meet their unfortunate ends:
We kill this too. Ivan can serve it at his gastropub
And from the duck, an egg. The normality of it
makes us tremble, so a quail egg, then — ostrich, robin, hen.
Something other than the expected, and inside: a golden needle
And Ivan ill-taught in the domestic arts
A woman’s tool, your mortality
Here the duck has come from a rabbit (who was killed too) and the rabbit from a “chest like a heart”—though “(You must remember, in Russian “chest” isn’t that / Such simile impossible / Such wordplay a sweet after twenty courses.)”—beneath an oak tree by the sea that keeps Koschei’s mortality. Koschei the Immortal or Koschei the Deathless is an antagonist who is difficult to kill because he keeps his soul buried in such a way. In this poem, it is Ivan the Fool who has found Koschei’s most vulnerable/valuable treasure—the golden needle. Ivan, we presume, will not know what to do with the needle, “ill-taught in the domestic arts” as he is. The last line is double edged—a woman’s tool is both vulnerable and valuable. That is, a woman’s domestic art both wields the power to take/give life and the vulnerability to be taken/given. And it is no fool who can handle it.
Vatomsky’s poetry explores this double edge of femininity in raw and exposing poems that surface in dreams as though they’re the remnants of a toothsome meal. Poems can be a shared breath, and Vatomsky allows us to breathe that breath that at once is an inhale/exhale or a birth and death. As the speaker states in the first poem “Coq au vin:”
I’m opening my skin for you, folding it down and around
Rolling out my skin for you, wrapping it like crust to
warm your bones as you rise to breathe my breath
Anna Elena Eyre is the author of Faceless Names: Two Books of Letters and is working on a Medusa Poetics. She resides in Massachusetts.