Phrasebook for the Pleiades
Cider Press Review
In Lorraine Doran's Phrasebook for the Pleiades, the sense of wonder and discovery that excites the speaker is infectious in the reader. This discovery, though, is entwined with a yearning that resurfaces throughout the speaker's exploration, and the reader feels the simultaneous joy and acceptance in the speaker's reflections. The frontispiece, "Promenade," concludes, "Her dress was the shape of crickets. It said / I am the perfect shade of green." This statement begins the speaker's discovery of beauty, a repeating theme in this collection that is striking.
This discovery takes a keen turn in "Satellite Photos of Our Former Homes," a group of poems in which the speaker has grown and must make sense of beauty from a distance. These poems as well as the "Postcard" poems detail moments of trying to make sense of past experiences in the speaker's hometown and elsewhere. In "(200 Mt. Pleasant)," the speaker ponders what our shared unconscious experiences might be: "I like thinking there's this one dream everyone has: / it makes me feel more human. Last night I had the dream / about falling. And the night before that / the one where you hit the deer with your car." The romantic and desirable feeling of being one with humanity is undercut by tragedy, which Doran handles beautifully.
Soon, the speaker's understanding of tragedy reflects a mature understanding of the world, as in "Snow Machines, Astor Place:"
The truth is: this snow will not melt in my hands.
The truth is making me cold.
I huddle under an awning with strangers.
We reach out our tongues, ignore the relentless humming.
It means nothing.
Things just die sometimes. Birds, for example.
Doran's tone is fascinating; as her speaker experiences the world, a sense of fearlessness begins to form as the collection develops. In "Lazarus," the speaker tries to understand the natural world: "Seeing, I knew the names of things / but not the trouble in them."
My favorite poems in Phrasebook for the Pleiades are those contained in "The Damascus Encyclopedia," where the speaker discovers and rediscovers objects like circles, tadpoles, and salt. The speaker reflects in "(Salt):" "Water / moves through our fractures, singing. We learned this as / children: to brave the sting. What hurts the wound will / heal it." Each prose poem in Doran's encyclopedia focuses on the speaker's renewed interaction with what would otherwise seem commonplace, and the images in these poems characterize the speaker's persistent desire to know more throughout the poems in this collection.
The moment that reveals the collection's title in the final poem, "Leaving Barcelona," is particularly touching:
Language is a strange religion when you do not have the words. It becomes
exhausting to contemplate travel in space, where moons have moons and
none of them have the same word for umbrella.
Who will write the phrasebook for the Pleiades? Who will order dinner so
we do not starve?
The speaker's riveting question about the Pleiades seems to suggest to the reader: who will continue to further our understanding of life? How will we pursue the thrill of adventure while realizing our limitations? Doran's juxtaposition of the next question is simply brilliant in that it makes the desire for more as critical as survival, and this theme is truly what makes this such a memorable collection of poetry. The speaker implores the reader to look for more in everything, even and especially the ordinary, because Doran's speaker understands the worlds within what each of us has already experienced.
Sarah Dravec is a graduate student in the NEOMFA in Akron, Ohio, where she studies poetry. She is a poetry editor for Barn Owl Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in And/Or, Blast Furnace, Dressing Room Poetry Journal, *82 Review, and others.