Sugaring by Ann Cefola

Dancing Girl Press, 2007

Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Ann Cefola's first chapbook, Sugaring, printed in a lovely handmade edition by Dancing Girl Press, quickly catches the eye with its burst of color from Cefola's own cover art, so that the reader is invited to partake in a sort of synesthesia involving taste and color before even reading a line. In this way, we discover early on that Cefola's aesthetic of “sugar” doesn't involve the refined crystalline substance that's poured into coffee out of paper packets but rather something vivid and dynamic that can be tapped into directly.

An alternate title for the chapbook might be "Vermont Poems," as Vermont as a landscape and a state of mind tends to figure so largely in these poems that it could almost be seen as a recurring character.

Vermont is the place where maple "sugaring" happens, but until the title poem, which is also the final poem, it predominantly figures in these poems as the place of austerity mythologized by Frost that all poets since have had to contend with when writing about it.

The narrators in Cefola's poems do contend with and negotiate, and at times choose to embrace this austerity, as in "Running With Delilah," one of Sugaring's strongest poems.

Landscape cold and cleansed as an Amish household: Sky, blue against black branches, waves through us. What are we running from, Delilah? Can you see the white feathering your nose, my hair? You say, We're fierce and biting as the dry air. And with wet grin and soft jowl, what you look for without, what we carry within: the lasting beauty of the unadorned bone.

There is a bare-bones Buddhist sensibility in poems like this, and in other poems, like "Open Season," which speak of finding "your sure path, as I have,/ in the dark and limitless spaces between stars."

Shortly before "Open Season," however, "Outside the Cold Spring Moon" closes with the phrase "Such pleasure in the unsure path."

The bare-bones Buddhist sensibility that infuses most of these poems, then, is the Zen ethic of openness to surprise and transformation, which finds beautiful expression in "Amphibious," the chapbook's penultimate poem.

I have wondered where my true home is, where the spring rain collects in clear streams or air sun-illumined and punctuated by moist pine. The frog preferring water as I need air. But there are days, sometimes accompanied by low rumble of thunder and bursts of lightning like unnatural sun, when water falls from the sky. Then the frog sings open-throated, amazed, and so do I.

The chapbook is divided into two sections, and seems to be loosely arranged in a chronological order related to the progression of the seasons. The opening poem of the first section, "Magnetic North," begins with the words "Shifting arctic ice..."

The last poem in that section, "Who Banned Rain?”, signals a shift away from the snowy season, and many of the poems in the second section are set during warmer times of year, although winter makes an occasional appearance, implying that, in a place like Vermont, winter can never stay completely out of mind.

One of the chapbook's few poems that does not deal directly with the natural world is "Confessional," which begins with the single-line stanza, in a poem otherwise composed of quatrains, "Frieda Kahlo is painting me meditating."

The imagery in this poem stands in stark contrast to the austerity of the Vermont poems, with lines like "Blood-red hibiscus in my hair. My hard stare./ Dogwood blossom crawling out of my heart, rust-stained, despite tender crown."

Here nature appears, but as metaphor rather than subject matter, in the same way nature and the body appear in Frieda Kahlo's psychically autobiographical paintings. This is a stretch for Cefola, but she rises to her own challenge with casually confidential lines like "Look at my traditional gringa prom dress: strapless!"

This poem clues us in, to some extent, to what Cefola is up to in Sugaring, observing the austere world her narrators move through with a painter's eye, rendering the monochrome in color while occasionally, in poems like "Confessional," rendering color back to the mind's eye's shades of gray.

If this is our first taste of Cefola's work, I'm ready to see more. The title poem ends with the lines, “You say, Are you sure? Such sweetness tapped makes me lick my lips/ yes.”

There is more information about this publication on the author's website,