Book Review: MY HEART IN ASPIC by Sonya Vatomsky

Sonya Vatomsky, My Heart in Aspic. Cincinnati: Porkbelly Press, 2015. $7.00

Reviewed by Heidi Czerwiec

Many of the poems in Moscow-born poet Sonya Vatomsky’s chapbook have a folkloric feel, where what one eats may have dire consequences. Here visceral endings are not glossed over or romanticized but embraced, the threat everywhere implicit, as in “Threnody in three courses”:

The moon is a dish of cream in the ink-black
sky I dye my clothes with and the guests sit clockwise around
the table. When I toast this death I clink my glass and no
admonishment comes.

Vatomsky’s poems center on themes of cooking and consuming – cooking as alchemy, as love potion – especially through the recurrent metaphor of salt, used either to add savor or to ward off evil and suffering (or to at least make it palatable):

I’ve been soup
that charred black to the pot…
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I salted for flavor and not against ghosts
I am Russian; I ate
cold tongue before I knew how to kiss.

Her lyric language, itself a play among several tongues, is itself a savory element, as in “Folk Tune Up”:

it is here that Koschei has buried his mortality
Under a tree, in a chest like a heart
(You must remember, in Russian “chest” isn’t that
Such simile impossible
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .)
a rabbit hops out
It’s killed, of course – the vegans are elsewhere, their business their own
And from the rabbit, ex lapore, a duck
We kill this too. Ivan can serve it at his gastropub
Folklore-to-table.

The men who appear in these poems represent a beloved who does not appreciate her efforts, her gestures, or that she “laid my entrails bare and ruby-red on/ your grandfather’s table and watched you rifle through/ them like cheap rings at a weekend market” (from “Spidersilk”). They take the guise of the wolf, the woodsman, Blackbeard, the Robber Bridegroom, and Ivan the Fool, all of whom have fooled themselves into believing they have power over this Dame:

It can be tempting
to think a woman is just waiting around to be resurrected, to be breathed
into after you suck the air out. But I will not be resurrected and if the
kitchen lacks salt it’s no great tragedy to me – I’ve made something
from nothing before. (“Dame à la Capuche”)

For me, the culinary and literary pìece de résistance is “Apotheosis,” a fiercely bathetic poem that stirs together the various thematic motifs of this collection. This macabre recipe or spell begins:

The recipe called for murder; I did not misread it:
6 SPRIGS FRESH DILL, as much SALT as you can stand,
and take a KNIFE to the one that failed you. 1 WHOLE POTATO,
1 WHOLE CARROT. You will not be cold this winter, you will not.

This is a solid manuscript of poems patterned by repetition and crafted like small fables. Of these, only “Vasovagal syncope” didn’t seem to fit in tonally, and “Mouth-off (II)” was a long walk (71 lines/3 pages) for a concept I got after about 5-6 lines.

But the last poem, “Spring Flowers,” is fantastic, its ending both startling and inevitable:

spring explodes from the snow, crocuses like shrapnel
because a transition is a war….
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I don’t know who won
but I think it was me.

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