Reviewed by Elvis Alves
The poetry in Hélène Cardona’s Life in Suspension reminds me at times of artwork by the famed Jean-Michel Basquiat, known as the Radiant Child. Basquiat purposely drew as a child. This added creativity and innocence to his work. These characteristics are in Cardona’s work, due to her ability to suspend the notion of completion in some of the poems.
In the title poem, Cardona takes us through a childhood by providing snippets of happenings in it (starting from the womb). A grandfather’s visit at three years old is remembered, “He holds my brother in his lap/and says, a boy at last, I am not impressed by girls” (27). Sixteen is the last age that the poem states. “I am sixteen years old, off to San Diego/My Mother cries at the Paris airport. She breaks my heart but the pull is stronger” (31). The reader wants to know what happens in the subsequent years but Cardona does not provide this information, on purpose. The desire to know is suspended, so too is the life of the protagonist of the poem. Cardona hints at this, “I become the sound of Tibetan bells, echoing and hovering in the cosmos. I perceive the whole world below, life in suspension” (31). This end gives the impression of suspension as meaning fly over (and it might well mean this) but the zeitgeist of the poem is one of premature stoppage, which is also a meaning of suspension.
This maneuvering is evident in Ex Tempore, which tells of a brother “In intensive care…between worlds/his brain flooded with blood” (75). The final lines of the last stanza, “Unlike his body, he seems at peace. All I can thinks is, Please God spare him” (75). We do not know if the brother survived. The poem ends in suspense. In this way, Cardona invites us into the emotionality of the poem. It is “unfinished” but registers with us.
Other poems in the collection employ animals and dreamlike states, happenings that Cardona is at home with (see her Dreaming My Animal Selves, Salmon Poetry, 2013).
Innovative, I transform into a wolf
Now horse merging into leopard,
I find my pack, eccentric muzzle
Leaping out into the world (Patience 79).
There is something instinctual here, with freedom at the base. Perhaps this is why Cardona features animals in her poetry. They remind us that we too are instinctual and that this part of us can be in motion more often if less constrained by the mind. But we must not move away too quickly from the mind. Imagination lives there. This lesson, too, is in Cardona’s work, as the poet is “gardener of memories” (Ouranoupolis Pantoum 45).
And so with leopard’s ears
I hear beyond the range of sound
the ineffable, the sublime, my mother’s
breath, grandmother’s smile, ancestor’s
voices, to soothe and heal the sorrow (In Search for Benevolent Immortality, 101).
We are fortunate to read Cardona’s account of this search in poetic form. The poems in the collection are also in French. This facilitates a wider readership of Cardona’s work, and serves as proof that poetry suspends linguistic barriers. It belongs in everyone’s collection of books.
About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collections Ota Benga (Mahaicony Books, 2017) and Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com