By Guy Sangster-Adams
Extraordinarily, magically, poignantly, I could have sworn just as I finished reading Hélène Cardona’s latest poetry collection and was switching on my laptop to write this review that I could faintly hear a lone piper playing Flowers of the Forest. Highly unusual in a house on the southern coast of England close on 500 miles from Edinburgh. As I threw open the windows with a clear view of Cap Gris Nez on the French coast 20 miles away the music grew louder. The air was suffused with the 500 year old air lamenting the Scottish fallen at the Battle of Flodden, the crash of the waves and the wind in the trees on the cliffside. I could see no piper but highly appropriately in my reverie post reading Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue as I looked out to sea the music pulled tight on the Celtic thread of my ancestry.
‘Highly appropriately’, because through the poems in the collection Cardona explores life after loss, particularly the loss of one’s mother, when one feels as though one has gone into suspended animation between the past and the future. How one can feel lost in the heartbroken void of the present, but also how one can slowly become receptive again to the the threads of memories and not only pull them tight but also wrap them around the lines stretching back through one’s parents and through the generations of one’s family. As she writes in the poem, In Search for Benevolent Immortality:
‘I hear beyond the range of sound
the ineffable, the sublime, my mother’s
breath, grandmother’s smile, ancestors’
voices, to soothe and heal the sorrow.’
Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue is a bilingual collection. Cardona wrote each poem first in English and then in French, linguistically reflecting the fact that she was born in France and now lives in the USA. But a life in suspension for Cardona is a life suspended between many different languages and lands, cherished memories and experiences in a variety of different tongues, and the ancestral voices she hears are as multi-lingual as she is: she speaks English, French, Spanish, German, Greek and Italian fluently. Her mother, Kitty, was Greek, her father, Jose Manuel Cardona, is a Spanish poet, and her formative years were spent all across Europe, in addition to time in the USA.
As an acclaimed and accomplished poet, actor (her credits include: Chocolat, Mumford,The 100 Foot Journey, Heroes Reborn), and literary translator, language and literature are her lifeblood and passion and she is as beautifully deft with the words of others as she with her own. As she compounds in the first verse of the collection’s titular poem, in which she beautifully and evocatively encapsulates her poetic voice and muse:
‘Let me introduce myself.
I’m the Memory Collector, your companion, and spirit guide.
Let’s unwind the clock, peel the past.
The reflections you give me, conjure, surrender from within,
I throw into the fire, the cauldron of resolutions.
They burn into embers and flickers that evolve into butterflies.
They flutter away, heal and free you of all chains
So they can revisit and reinvent who you are.
Let the dance begin.’
The dance, ‘a dance to the music of time’ to borrow from Nicholas Poussin/Anthony Powell, in Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue is in four parts. For me, the poems in the first part explore the loss of a mother, how life becomes a frozen present – there is no future, only a past one is desperate to remember, to remain in; ‘a cloister of shadows loved’ as Cardona writes in Twisting the Moon. Whilst in the second they reflect on how the love of another can help one heal, allow one to continue, as she writes in Eagle, ‘On the wall of time to come / a window appears’.
As a teenager Cardona spent time in Wales, and later in Ireland, and the collection and, for me, particularly the poems in the third part take inspiration from Celtic legend, from Ceridwen, a mother, an enchantress, and the Celtic goddess of rebirth, transformation, of whom Medieval Welsh poetry speaks of having possessed the cauldron of poetic inspiration. The poems in this section explore transformation, metamorphosis, and the natural world to reflect on the changes in oneself bereavement brings, the natural cycle, and also that in searching for one’s mother after losing her, and wondering how one can ‘find’ her again, there is the realisation that she is in everything, throughout the beauty of nature. The final part is contemplative of one’s own place in ‘the dance’; the past is gone, but lives on within the child, what are the ways in which we are reborn, and how do we face our own end. As Cardona writes in Between Klimt and Giacometi, ‘Every wall is a beginning’.
To end with the three words with which this review began the beautifully realised Life in Suspension / La Vie Suspendue is extraordinary, magical, and poignant.
Hélène Cardona: helenecardona.com
Salmon Poetry: salmonpoetry.com
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