Charlotte Pence, The Branches, the Axe, the Missing, Black Lawrence Press, 2012

Reviewed by Ryan Walsh

[Review Guidelines]

Early in Charlotte Pence's short collection, The Branches, the Axe, the Missing (winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition), a woman pauses from the chore of dragging a downed tree limb through the mizzling dark of her driveway. The speaker wonders:

How long has it been since she has done something as
          fundamental as this?

Indeed, it is a kind of question that is likely to echo for readers throughout this slim volume of linked poems—how long has it been since one has encountered poems that dare to be as fundamental in scope or as stripped of posturing as these? With sparse language, a tightly controlled palette of imagery, and earnest lines of inquiry into personal and human history, as well as the nature of longing and loss, these poems step beyond the noise of so much glib contemporary poetry to sit with elemental cold, discomfort, failure, and yearning. Smudged with the carbon-whorled fingerprints of one rooting through the ashes of a spent fire, the poems hunger after something, searching for

          that first word, that first word
that spiked a   whole  new     species

The work twines two threads through its 18 sections:  a narrative that centers on a female character who grapples with the terms of what is lost and what is gained through severing (by axe, knife, divorce) and a meditation on the anthropological origins of language and thought. Throughout, there is a brevity that brings both clarity and mystery (and sometimes a friendly wink), as in the shortest piece, Section XIV:

All stories come from one of two:

A person loses something and tries to get it back (i.e. Lolita).

A person gets something and tries not to lose it (i.e. Lolita).

Perhaps these poems are imperfect, and at points prose swallows the music, as when it is explained in Section IV that, "Biological anthropologists are discovering that/'we were born from wood/and fire' is not/figurative.//Taming fire/led to/cooking which led to/more calories/which led to/bigger brains to/language speech communities..." Still, the collection as a whole is an utterly worthy effort handled with grace.

Like the early humans conjured in The Branches, the Axe, the Missing, Pence crafts a subtly intricate world with "just" branches, fire, darkness, memory, and the sharp scythe of questions. No doubt, her poems will continue to evolve, too. This is a wise and brave little book, and we'll soon have a chance to see more; her first full-length collection of poetry is due out from Black Lawrence Press in 2014.