Thursday, July 02, 2009

Prisoner's Dilemma, Reviewed


“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” *

But for mystics, the disabled and convalescent, those in enclosed orders, those dedicated to fulfilling their genius, those in jail and those who exist in a mental straitjacket, whatever the cause, there is always a conundrum:

Does the elusive Truth exist on the Inside or Outside?

Hostages like Brian Keenan, Anne Frank, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all attested a life of the spirit and the imagination that would not and could not be limited by physical and ideological constraints.

So does narrowed focus confer a sharper and profounder vision, offering its compensations? Or is Freedom only to be found upon the exterior, in the prolix toil and muddle of human activity where opportunities for discovery abound? Even where choice is possible, aren't these states mutually exclusive?

Cheryl Snell in a new chapbook, Prisoner's Dilemma, explores this theme in situations concerning many kinds of effacement. Each short poem is offered like a remnant of woven fabric placed under the microscope so that the colours, slubs and knots and arabesques, can be appreciated. The imagery is often stark and reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, the emotion bottled which, unstoppered, pervades an air of vaguely fragrant stoicism. Where the subtext is menacing, it frets away at a blithe surface like a sliver of glass stuck in the weave. But, often, it's uncompromising, violent, in-your-face, leaving the reader with no more than the merest scintilla of hope. The images juxtaposed in Snell's phrases cleverly release new flights of meaning as, for example in Dirty Laundry:

Tumbling from the fold
of a fitted sheet – balled-up
silk, some foreign lace. Things come
and go in this house. Last night, an earring
tangled in the wrong colour hair, everything
gone bloodshot and damp.

The man's non-sequiturs circled the drain
of his stranger's ear: Let lovers go fresh and sweet
to be undone. How else to go
with a come-on like that – innocent as soap,
pink bubbles bursting like an alibi
on the verge of coming clean.

The collection as a whole hangs together with the shape and atmosphere of René Magritte's surreal painting The Empty Mask and, in miniature, I don't doubt is as accomplished. Cheryl Snell ably demonstrates that Richard Lovelace was right!*

(Rosy Cole)

Chapbook hauntingly illustrated by Janet Snell.

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