A Jar of Fireflies. Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews. Mosaic Press. 2015. Reviewed by Sharon Berg.
This is a book of longings. The poet longs for the country of her ancestors.
She is the woman you had to leave behind.
The poverty a man must over come.
In order to survive.
That void in the heart
You have tried in vain to fill
With new-found worldly pleasures.
Things to replace her.
She is longing for the past, when her father lived happily on a homestead “north from Africa” where:
Wheat fields sway their rugged tresses
And unkempt rose gardens spill their fragrant bloom
On weathered river cane fences
My grandfather built.
(My Father’s House)
She is also yearning for her own past, when “the world was raw sensation” (Memories), her sons still begged “for one more bedtime story” (Creation), and she had a “glimpse of fleeting passion” from a lover who was “So bold. So true./ So swiftly gone” (A Cardinal in the Cedars).
Traditionally, the poet is understood to articulate a difficult position in society. They are understood to bridge the gap between a political mind, the practical experience, the yearning for improvement, and a burden of disappointments experienced in life with the joy and understanding that emerges through a life connected to people, places, and social events. Di Sciascio-Andrews has directed her poetry toward that function and she usually achieves her goal.
It all makes me think of a chunk of tree
I saw once. Trapped like flesh
Through a chain-link fence.
The tree itself, cut down.
No longer there.
Just this remnant torso
Of itself forever caught
Growing toward sunlight.
Indeed, the title of this book conjures an expectation of poems that glow like the proverbial firefly.
This is a good looking and nicely designed book. It has a good feel, from the quality of the paper to its choice of font and the layout of the text. However, it is missing an acknowledgements page. This is important. The collection starts with Sea Glass, the title poem for her first self-published collection (2008), and winner of an Oakville Literary Café contest. It is also a poem published on her online space at Poem Hunter. Yet, nowhere in this book is there an acknowledgements note to give you publishing information on either that poem or any of the others included in this book. There is not even a footnote, though several of the other poems in the book possess footnotes. This is my first hesitation.
Di Sciascio-Andrews has written four books before this one, so I expected to read a substantial body of work in her fifth collection. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great sections within many of these poems, as the title poem proves.
Up close, behind laurel leaves, a scarab
Tucked away its iridescent wing. And the fig tree
Curled a webbed leaf around its purple fruit.
My mother’s shadow held me close too.
Like a hushing. A silent belonging to the earth.
To the blood that bore us. Like everything
And everyone before and after.
The earth holding us up like a new crop
For a seemingly endless season.
(A Jar of Fireflies)
Still, while this is strong poetry, there are problems, even in this poem.
For instance, the capitals that start each line in this (and many other poems) are interruptive to the flow of the piece. This is jarring in this book because the capitals didn’t fit the subject matter or line breaks of the poem. Plus, in the section printed above, there are words and punctuation that need trimming. Why is there a period after ‘too’ in the fourth line? Why is the word ‘too’ there at all, when it is implied? For my taste, there are a multitude of examples like this of poems that could have been improved with more attention to editing.
There are also several instances in this book of grammatical errors that should have been caught by the book editor. For instance, she says:
He had his eye on a new, red one
That he’d seen in a music shop window
In Clarkson – was planning to buy it
After the last mortgage payment
Of what was to become his last spring.
(The Red Accordion)
The last line of that stanza should say “In what was to become his last spring” or else we assume he is paying a mortgage on spring. In another poem, the wrong homonym is chosen: “Whatever lead you/ To eschew my love/ Must have had its reasons” (Vitruvian Heartbreak) should read “Whatever led you”. That is something else an attentive book editor should have caught.
There are times when Di Sciascio-Andrews handles her craft well, such as a set of love poems in the middle of the book where the poet joins the imagery used with an experience of lived energy (Of Love and Writing, Your Eyes, Your Voice, Winter Love). Yet, she often allows herself to fantasize what it means to be a poet (Poetic Alchemy, The Poem), using out-dated language when she applies archaic words like ‘maiden’ (The Moon, Love’s Treasure) to women. Then she simply tries too hard and over-shoots the mark.
Me absorbing nature
Within the porous skin
Of my poetic soul.
Often, Di Sciascio-Andrews errs several times in the same poem, in different ways. She frequently uses words that should have readers running for a dictionary though they have little purpose for the poem in either its structure or its meaning.
Bombs exploding out of sight
Somewhere in the synapses
Are muffled by magnolias
Blooming pink like dopamine.
Beyond the sunny conflagrations
Of forsythia, tragedies too, recede.
Maybe you don’t need a dictionary, simply stopping to reread those lines or skipping over your questions. Yet, her attempts to offer unique imagery, using the words ‘diadems’, ‘macroscopic incandescence’ and ‘bloomlessness’ all in the same poem are disappointing (Spring Morning). Likewise, she speaks of ‘tarantula gazes’, ‘multioptic nuclei’, ‘silverfish waves’, ‘sun’s remnant pyrotechnics’, and ‘crepuscular void’ in one poem (Summer’s End in the Gardens of Bronte Pier). These strings of words posture more than they represent coherent ideas.
I cannot end my review without saying I found the end of the book more rewarding than the front and middle of the book. It presents several well-made poems (Immigrants Fishing on the Oakville Pier, Leaving, Glendella House) that don’t posture. Still, while the Firefly (or Lightning bug) is a beetle that emits a chemically produced glow in their lower abdomen to attract mates – their larvae are sometimes called glow worms because they also emit light. In terms of her development as a poet, the poems collected in A Jar of Fireflies are often glow worms needing further editing (about a third of the book) rather than fully developed fireflies.
Physical books from publishing houses with a history of producing renowned authors exist at an important point within the scope of becoming a published author in today’s literary world. Those books are relatively few and far between when it comes to poetry. So, each and every example should be considered a statement about the importance of maintaining the ‘art’ in publishing – especially when it comes to poetry – for they are meant to be a treasured testament of the author’s voice. A careful book editor would have helped Di Sciascio-Andrews to better achieve her intent. That puts pressure on the publisher to ensure the book is ready for the printing press.
the flowers too
will be upturned
purple blooms crowning rubble
replaced by clean, neat turf