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Cabot Black Essays and Reviews

02-26-2012

A Review of The Descent by Bob Williams from The Compulsive Reader, http://www.compulsivereader.com/html/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=818

Some poetry is easy to assess and classify and some is not and the difference has little to do with relative quality. It would be well in this context to state right off that this poetry is exceptionally good. It proceeds by indirections and pursues different perceptions simultaneously with a sound emotional or intellectual resolution achieved in the last lines. The book is divided into three parts. A rough description would describe the parts as respectively a hymn to nature, love poems and religious poems. Such a rough description would be inadequate and partly misleading but provides enough so long as it is not taken too seriously.

Much of the headlong rhythm that governs these poems results from the generous use of run-on lines. ‘Cougar’ is an excellent example of her effective use of run-ons and the way in which she finds resolutions.

In this narrow passage I must appear as large
As possible, arms uplifted into what might

Be thought of as God and the ideas of how
To get past even this without being killed,

Taken away, for somewhere in the act of want
Is being wanted, and we move

Over the frozen ground in the presumption
One of us will suffer and only one of us will be

Exact enough, which is why I came alone,
Following a creek back up its last place

To see how far I could go, with the raven
Who will not end his circle, the wind as it

Turns through a gnarl of bristlecone. We were
Never meant to be this close and to survive.


In this, as in many of her poems, the run-ons pivot on slightly unexpected meanings so that the reader is in a constant state of surprise. She also writes with an insistent but unobtrusive music. Her sounds are right and rightly placed.

The astute reader will have noticed that Black draws on experiences – such as encounters with cougars – that are not likely to occur on Columbia campus. Many if not most of the poems are based on what seem experiences of desolate or desert places.

Towards the end of each section there is a rise in intensity, the more telling poems although not necessarily the best ones thus occupying a prominent position. A poem, ‘The Offering,’ from the third section depicts spiritual desolation tellingly.

Up to the point of no return
Was climbed. Dominion came
Apart when you asked for whatever last

I could give. All along I thought it me
Who wanted to finish this
And that I would know you

By how you finally came. But here at the end,
Borders do not hold, actually
Never existed. I made myself a stranger

To find you. I leaned
Into the wrong sacred, brought
Everything with me. And now the binding

(The difficult act of how much to love)
Loosens itself until only the gift remains
Intact, spared, unwanted.


In every great poem there is that small but essential twist of phrase that is a wake-up call. In this poem it is “I leaned into the wrong sacred.” This is very exciting work and its creator deserves to be better known.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

What they’re saying about The Descent

“Sophie Cabot Black, in her second book, The Descent, is absolutely direct and absolutely removed—a strange confluence of tones that is both intellectually provocative and deeply moving….Black’s voice is startling, jagged and implacable, and The Descent is steep, precipitous and dazzling—all the way down from a hard-earned heaven.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Spare to the point of elegance…The work [is] elusive but enchanting.” —American Poet

“Such is the territory of
The Descent—outside the known, in an untamed place of grave danger and great beauty.” —Field

“In her own quiet, approaching way, Black dissects love and relationships at length, a sense of longing that’s reiterated over and over and never fulfilled.” —Fairfield Weekly

“Following her first distinguished collection, The Misunderstanding of Nature, award-winning poet Sophie Cabot Black scores again in bringing her considerable talent to The Descent. Written in lyrical passages, it is a book of quiet, almost primordial, intensity in its metaphors and similes.” —The Sanford Herald

“Sophie Cabot Black is an award-winning poet whose lyrical verse and revelatory images evoke and highlight doubt, loss, survival, and spiritual resilience. The Descent is her second published collection and continues to document her unmistakable voice and literary talent.” —Midwest Book Review

Judy Ossello: The Last Poem I Loved, “Interrogation” by Sophie Cabot Black from The Rumpus, http://therumpus.net/2010/08/judy-ossello-the-last-poem-i-loved-interrogation-by-sophie-cabot-black/“When you have me as I’m standing / Against a wall” ignites memories of intimacy that overcome the who, what, where, and when of relationships. Intense moments have a quality of sameness. You feel alive in that moment, not specific, and this poem offers some words where there are none. A good kiss has a color, a hue, a luminescence that “hangs like a valuable stone above us.”

Love can be quick and easy, especially without any social norms governing exactly how many poems you can love at one time. I’ve consistently loved “Interrogation” for the last 16 years.

It started in college. I had some money left on my bookstore grant so I decided to buy a few books of poetry. One of the books was The Misunderstanding of Nature by Sophie Cabot Black, which was published in 1994 and won the Norma Farber First Book Award that same year.

The combination of love and Heroin in “Interrogation” is so intense and true and well-written that I rarely read any of her other poems. “I lose words remembering to speak” and “my sex becomes / Suddenly agnostic” while their bodies are “becoming / Sentimental.”

I had never heard of Graywolf Press, which started their jacket copy with “Sophie Cabot Black is an unabashedly passionate poet.” In her author photo, Sophie is wearing these crazy long earrings and has some serious early 90’s hair attitude that reminds me of a cross between the movies Heathers and The Bad Seed. She knows exactly what she wants to say, and her honesty doesn’t waste words.

I’m one of those people who spends a lot of time in their head. I appreciate the moments when simple physical awareness commands attention, and my consciousness temporarily dwells in the immediate reality of the physical world. Interrogation captures this odd state with observations like “I keep thinking / You’re asking me something” until her eyes “start to empty too, become / Exactly like yours, until all there is / Is a heart, each beat rendering the last silent.”

Judy Ossello has a BA in Creative Writing from Denison University where she received the Danner Lee Mahood Fiction Award and Award for Feminist Creative Expression. She has decided to return to writing after over 10 years and was recently accepted to the 2010 Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared online in Eclectica Magazine, and she currently writes almost daily for www.writerloop.com.