October 9, 2020KR Reviews

On Gravity Assist by Martha Silano

Ardmore, PA: Saturnalia Books, 2019. 104 pages. $16.00.

Gravity Assist, Martha Silano’s fifth book of poetry, launches into space and reports back on life on earth from a unique vantage point. As the title suggests, the language of space travel is used throughout the book to describe family dynamics, most frequently the parent-child bond. “Notes on Gravitational Forces” is a series of one sentence stanzas, each starting with “Since,” that struggles to define the pull exerted by family relations. Silano doesn’t use these specialized terms to obscure meaning, but to maintain some distance between speaker and subject. No special knowledge is necessary to understand Silano’s commentary on the influence of parents on a child: “Since the mass of a smaller object is affected by the pull of two bodies, but those bodies / do not feel that object’s influence.” Filtered through the laws of aeronautics, the fraught family connections described here are moving yet avoid sentimentality.

One of the most tragic poems, “When I saw the loblolly pine,” opens with the speaker struggling to comprehend the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet: “I was close / to fully understanding when a bird / is gone it’s gone.” The parakeets interfered with tobacco and cotton crops and were hunted to extinction, which was easily accomplished because:

. . . Their greatest fault:
returning to the place where one
had been shot, otherwise known
as unfortunate flocking behavior.

The poem suddenly changes pronouns from I to you (shifting the focus away from the speaker and becoming more universal) as it takes a devastating turn:

and returning to the small-scale
garden plot where your dead brother
lay . . .

The poem leaps just as quickly back to the birds, but the reader cannot unsee the dead brother and cannot help but read the final lines as reference to both the extinct parakeets and the deceased brother. The poem closes with an elegy that is all the more beautiful for its brevity.

. . . Because
they loved corn, tore open
apples to reach the seeds
because their distress calls
could be heard for miles,
there’s a little less wonder
along the Perdido River.

The collection also contains several compelling eco-poems that catalog the ongoing damage to our planet. The tone is matter-of-fact but effectiveand, to Silano’s credit, never becomes accusatory or preachy. “Nearly Every Songbird on Earth is Eating Plastic” cites statistics on the percentage of “sea-faring avians” that eat plastic (80% by 1980), but the most memorable and relatable moment is the image of a gull “ridding from its ass the remains / of a Yoplait parfait.”

“The New Nature Poem” itself is toxic, the reader warned: “If you touch this poem, wear gloves for the Roundup / it romps in, a mask for the endocrine-disrupting  pesticides.” The poem ends ominously and abruptly without punctuation, the last sentence truncated as if the poem itself has become an endangered species: “the last three species of endemic / sea stars ripping themselves apart, arms crawling away in.”

In other poems, Silano reveres and celebrates ordinary birds and vegetables. Hummingbirds are “iridescent sparklers” for which “I blanket the yard with foxglove, Hot-Lips Salvia, little cigar.” “Ode to a Red Bell Pepper” envisions the pepper as a seductive woman generating heat as the poem turns sexy and urgent: “You a curvaceous darling suggesting  / a womb, fear’s pulsing bulb. An emergency.”

There were times when I readily grasped the meaning of a strange word or when it didn’t seem important to look it up, but the book would benefit from explanatory notes for some of the more technical terms. While not crucial, looking up unfamiliar words such as periapsis (the point in the path of an orbiting body when it is closest to the body it orbits; or childhood,  as it is used in the first section of the book) is well worth the effort and enhances the reader’s appreciation for these poems.

Whether writing about parakeets, her brother, or escape velocity, Silano skillfully blends unusual and familiar language to express emotions to which the reader can easily relate. But trying to describe what it’s like to read this book is like trying to catch the “wind in a net.” You should experience firsthand Silano’s “pursuit / of all things ephemeral.”

Deborah Hauser
Deborah Hauser is the author of Ennui: From the Diagnostic and Statistical Field Guide of Feminine Disorders (Finishing Line Press). Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics, and Carve Magazine. Her book reviews have been published at Mom Egg Review and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. She leads a double life on Long Island where she works in the insurance industry.