Toti O’Brien, an accordionist, poet, dancer, musician, and the author of The Past, Ineffable, lives in Los Angeles. She connects us to Italy, her original home, writing about uncertainty, grief, estrangement, and struggle, together with wonder, joy and a sense of discovery.
By Alicia Viguer-Espert
Some of the frequent themes in her poems include classic myths, family stories of love and betrayal and the body’s gifts and anxieties. Her language, rich and sophisticated, aligns with a woman educated in more than a single discipline. The complexity of the poems leads to several interpretations and perhaps this is her intention; clarity does not seem to be the goal, mystery is. On the other hand, the magic of her words transports this reader to places she never considered visiting before.
The Past, Ineffable consists of several parts, Prologue, Alter, Alter, The Master, Interlude, Commuting, The Past, Ineffable, and Epilogue. The three poems in “Prologue” introduce the power of language and though in “Scripture” she reinterprets the Genesis, “In principio it was branding” as the pain of being born, in “Lexicon,” the last of the trilogy, she celebrates the discovery and pleasure of words, “he rolled blue butterfly/ on his tongue and a taste/ of aniseed lingered.”
In the “Alter, Alter” section, the theme of twins surfaces in five poems. They capture the reader’s attention from the miscarriage of one of the pair, to their unique attachment, to the infinite forms rivalry takes between siblings. I imagine how relatives not only projected, but cemented their perceptions of the children’s aptitudes and physical beauty into their tender minds. In “Equals” she documents with precision how their differences and competition emerge a very early age, “how/ the tint of his curls is shinier. / How orbits of the little one/sometimes gathers shadow.” The twins function as mirrors to each other; they are their reversed and complementary selves.
Some poems present us with impeding catastrophes, whether arising from religious experiences, the body, or the societal tendency for violence. Ambivalence towards family relations is evident in “True and False.” Referring to the father figure she tells him, “You are dressing me in words/they are soft,” but she also tells us he is “…compressed like a fist, like a bullet.” Though the poetic voices experience physical and emotional danger, they often find nevertheless, a path to escape or at least to minimize its effects by leaving.
In the section titled “Interlude,” the last poem, “Untitled” puzzles me with the last line referring to Joan of Arc’s thighs, the thighs of a virgin, “they open and close/ like a notebook,” but it’s a powerful image, and I like it.
“Commuting,” one of the book’s larger sections, brings the fragility of life and the certainty of death to the forefront. In the poem “Marching On,” she tells us “I have abandoned/ my suitcase at the station. From now/on I will walk bare-shouldered, bare/armed, my hands free of all burden.” I imagine her dying to her previous life, abandoning the traditional mores of a younger self, to choose freedom, complete unencumbered freedom; I applaud her.
I found the complexities of family relations again in “Cumpleaño” in “The Past, Ineffable.” A daughter arrives late to her mother’s birthday, and I’d like to know why. The plates are half empty, but “the remaining food tasted sublime.” Gladly, she accepts what’s left, whether it’s her full inheritance or not. Some memories and myths are carried into other poems such as “Myth of Origin,” “Inland Hotel,” “Survival,” but to be able experience them fully, one has to read this book.
Paradise is an illusion and, the road to this mystical secret world is through Ms. O’Brien’s luminous language, which takes us from birth to death and back again to the depths of memory, where a plate of food for the trip, the soles of one’s feet and an open mind are all one needs to enter the evasive Eden. The wide range of themes, accompanied by the distinctive richness of her iconography makes the reading of “The Past Ineffable” a unique, unforgettable experience.
The Past, Ineffable By Toti O’Brien 89 pages Publisher: Cholla Needles Art and Literary Library ISBN:9798388556141
Alicia Viguer-Espert is the author of “Holding a Hummingbird.”
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