W e spend a lot of time lately fearing collapse. When will the autocrat permanently dismantle our institutions? How will we live when circumstances carry us beyond the furthest extreme? So busy are we comparing ourselves to frogs being brought to a slow boil, it seems we may not realize when we are past the point of ruin. Would we recognize such a beyond? With Dregs (Four Way Books, 2018), Cynthia Cruz courageously throws her hat over that wall. Having done so, Cruz must find a language for the blanched, godless terrain, and readers of her work will find this an emotionally moving project.
Cruz’s oeuvre includes a crown of five books that in different ways address “ephemera, and trauma” (as it is called in the poem “Bell in the Water”). In many ways, Dregs is an afterward to her debut, Ruin, a wonderful post-trauma meditation, similarly strange and dreamlike. There are cultural, spiritual, and personal stakes in such a documentation. I submit the author’s face on the cover looking at the camera as supporting evidence.
Multiple definitions of the word dregs open the collection. From a sediment of liquors to feces, each is a nuanced version of worthless residue and remnant. Several of the poems are in fact fragments, including a diary entry, forgotten films and their creators, remainders in form and content that exist on a searing white backdrop. This is the dream / Vocabulary. // This is the end, declare the final lines of “The Dead Serious Game,” — a poem set in an afterworld workshop where toys are made for the dying — in case the rules of engagement are not clear.
White foxes, medicine bottles, deathly vehicles that court a tenuous edge, accumulate until they come to exist beyond their referents. A poem called “Forgotten Glosses,” which Cruz has said began as a poem about the German art-thriller Barbara, has the film’s furniture (cigarettes, a Mercedes) and its heart (humanity, both stripped and retained), even as it is untethered from its original subject. Readers of Cruz’s poetry will recognize the opaque circumstances and decontextualized scenes, but objects on the landscape remain as distinct as red berries in the snow.
“Red Almanac” is a captivating and intensely vivid poem that engages language for one of its highest callings — giving voice to the strictly conceptual:
A flame in the forest
The fire bird circles
Whispering, the water
Is a wound.
The blind white foxes,
They are afraid of everything.
Their sadness is a wordless
Song, a miraculous
Cacophony of warm
Liquid amber and music,
A doorless darkness.
White —foxes, frost, milk, the stark porcelain of a ward’s room — all provide a backdrop that suggests an empty abyss, a film run clean out of its spool, a blank page. Foregrounded is lush and ornate artifice, masks that are lavish exaggerations of the self beneath. In “Masquerade” the reader witnesses a slow removal:
Take the sheared
Mink coat off,
The soft pink
Black lace stockings,
The removal is, finally, complete:
Take the yellow
From the icebox.
And let the spell
Of God’s sweet orchestra
Removal is a dangerous proposition — starving the body can bring one to the brink of death or over it, Cruz reminds us — and much is relinquished and taken away in Dregs. Spare, often slender, often written in short couplets, the poems don’t allow for rhetorical embellishment, and, as such, the reader is never insulated from the proximity of language. Lines are sumptuous, and claustrophobic in their sumptuousness. Words teeter on a margin, drawing attention to the fragility of the line’s construction. From “Blau Vogel:”
In the game of death,
You take the mystical
Medicine, and pray,
It hustles you
Away from the silvering
Whittled to a single-word, lines lean heavily on their surrounding void, as here in the euphonious “Ghost”:
The world is a Russian
Wood of wolves and white
Cruz’s heritage is German and Mexican. Her German, French, and Russian influences are on radiant display in Dregs — but she is an American poet, born in Germany and raised in Northern California in a working-class family she has described as existing on society’s margins. Cruz’s progenitors are unmistakably Plath and Dickinson, though Dregs, with its wrenching collision of the mortal world and the otherworld put me in mind of Jean Valentine. Both Cruz and Valentine write poems that are simultaneously capacious and intimate, with I’m-gonna-just-leave-this-here endings that have over the years tormented me. Readers can judge this affinity — here is Valentine’s “Door in the Mountain:”
Never ran this hard through the valley
never ate so many stars
I was carrying a dead deer
tied on to my neck and shoulders
deer legs hanging in front of me
heavy on my chest
People are not wanting
to let me in
Door in the mountain
let me in
Like Valentine, Cruz’s poems negotiate space and the silence they suggest. Craig Morgan Teicher said in a recent essay in APR that silence is the hidden subject of all poems, and for Cruz it is a preoccupation in her poetry and her prose. It is rupture and refusal; it is the unsayable and the undeclared. It yokes trauma to utterance. The poem “Forgotten Glosses” comes to its arresting end with, What was I saying? // The mind goes blank, leaving the poem to reverberate in literal blank space.
In minimalist music, white space explores the static development of sonorities. Its complexity comes from the tension that exists when there is no movement forward. Cruz is not a minimalist, but in her slim poems the syntax can often be verbless, and what are verbs for but to move a narrative along — anathema to the stasis of the post-ruin world of Dregs. Holding to the brink of that unsettling edge is one of Cruz’s most nimble moves.
What can’t be said can be written, said the poet Herta Müller in her acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature 2009. She was speaking about meeting powerlessness with resistance. Müller is one of several women — artists, writers, historical figures — whose lives and the trauma that informed those lives ghost Cruz’s book. Is that poet Ingeborg Bachmann, moving from city to city with her medicine? Could that be Marguerite Duras’ young lover at the gate, holding up the river? Eva Hesse holds forth in name and essence, an artist known for her minimalist work, some made from discarded material. Bachmann is another, whose life of dislocation penetrates the pages of Dregs. Simone Weil, who in her final haunting moments refused to eat — either in solidarity or madness — presides over the poem “White Room.” Artist Hanne Darboven drifts above “Bell in the Water,” seeming to give utterance one of this book’s shining, verbless truths:
Obsessing archiving and collecting
As a means to stop the tremulating drone
Of memory, the diamond-white
Rush of doom.
Duras, in fact, provides the book’s epigraph, taken from her essay Writing, and exhibit two, if you will, in the case of the heightened stakes of this collection: One can speak of a writing sickness. Dregs is grounded by these women’s presence. They are, as Duras might say, to one side of the self — synecdoches, spectral guides for navigating whatever lies beyond the wall. Those who live on the edge, in the margins, and past the point of ruin always bear the world’s burdens most profoundly. Readers of Dregs will be indebted to Cruz for a fearless book of poetry that documents those lives.