Women write introspectively about life, grief

by Tyler Tichelaar

Once, Then
by Andrea ScarpinoSR OnceThen
Once, Then is a full-length poetry collection about death, grief, spirituality, God and myth. Other reviewers of this collection have called the poems “Orphic songs of grief” because of their Greek myth references and their elegiac style.
At the center of the poems are two deaths—one of a father, the other of a friend in a car accident. While each poem stands alone, these two situations are at the center of the majority and recur throughout the book. The poems about the father’s death especially have a progression: the father seeing himself hovering above his bed a few weeks before his death, to his death and the narrator’s efforts to reach his deathbed but arriving too late, and then to stages of the body’s rigor mortis, the morgue , the narrator cleaning out her father’s house and dealing with grief over a year.
In addition, several poems are about tragic political situations that resulted in death. The opening poem is about a woman being beheaded as reported on the news—allegedly for adultery in a Muslim country. Others reference deaths at Hiroshima and Auschwitz and even Mark Madoff’s suicide.
Most of the poems are short enough to fit on one page, but a few run four or five pages. One of the most poignant poems visually is “By the Sagebrush” about the car accident. The poem switches from tidy looking stanzas to scattered words across the page, reflecting the jarring and random feelings that arise after the car accident as the narrator performs CPR on her dead friend.
Besides the theme of loss in the poems, the narrator experiences strong conflicted feelings about whether she believes in God. She struggles in one of the early poems with her dying father having an out-of-body experience so “I played the scientist, blamed your medication,/seizures, hearing aids. What else could I believe?” Later, while visiting Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, “On her knees, she lit a candle, prayed, believed, Keep my father safe. Amen.”
Greek mythology enters many of the poems, tying to the theme of belief in God. In one poem, the narrator prays to Persephone: “So it’s you, all along, to whom I should have prayed,/ruler of ghosts, curses.” She speaks of how Persephone does not give up her dead, “Iron Queen,/I will pay any price. Just send me my father’s ghost.”
Finally, one poem obviously influenced by Scarpino’s life in Marquette is titled “Holy Family Orphanage.” In it she describes the sandstone building and the rumors of haunting, including a girl who tried to escape, froze to death, and had her body shown for weeks in the dining hall, concluding, “Warning: a building holds us almost-safe,/mortar, glass, sandstone from the lake,/Almost whole, then lets us go. Decays.”
Once, Then is a touching collection—one that deserves multiple readings. It speaks of the difficult questions—whether life has meaning or there is hope, as well as how little we too often value life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will find something in this book that will resonate with personal experiences.
Scarpino, who lives in Marquette, is also the author of The Grove Behind. She is a faculty member with Union Institute and University’s Cohort Ph.D. Program in Interdisciplinary Studies where she is the Creative Dissertation Coordinator, Coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing and Director of the Master of Arts Program. For more information, visit www.andreascarpino.com

Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal
by Sigrid UndsetSuperior Reads martaoulie
Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is known as Norway’s Nobel Prize winning author. Now, for the first time in English, her debut 1907 novel Marta Oulie has been published by University of Minnesota Press.
It’s surprising this novel hasn’t been in print in English before, since it, along with Undset’s medieval trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, is credited with being the reason why she received the Nobel Prize. And what a debut novel Marta Oulie was. The opening sentence declares, “I have been unfaithful to my husband”—a statement that sent shockwaves among readers of the day, and its theme of adultery has often led to its comparison to Anna Karenina and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That said, it is radically different in many ways from those better known novels.
The story opens in 1902, roughly two years after the act of adultery has been committed. The novel is written as a series of diary entries by Marta who begins by telling how she feels guilty about the adultery. She has been married to her husband, Otto, for about eleven years and they have three children, plus a fourth child, a one-year-old daughter whom Otto believes is his, but whom Marta knows is the child of Henrik—her husband’s business partner, her cousin and her lover. She feels great pain over the delight Otto takes over this youngest child, and that guilt is enhanced because Otto now lives in a sanitarium where he is dying.
Through her diary entries, Marta tells us about her past—how she met and fell in love with Otto, the early years of their marriage and eventually, the little things that led to her affair with Henrik. I found the novel interesting because of its introspective viewpoint as well as the moments of conflict between Henrik and Marta. Even though the novel was written over a century ago, I think the marital issues will still resonate with readers.
This new edition is translated by Tiina Nunnally and includes an insightful introduction by Jane Smiley (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, A Thousand Acres). Smiley’s introduction focuses on biographical details of Undset’s life. I found it interesting that Undset wrote this novel about a married mother in her thirties when she was herself twenty-four and unmarried. Her ability to enter the mind of someone unlike herself is remarkable, and yet, Smiley points out how the novel is part of Undset lifetime when issues like women’s rights were being discussed, and this book followed other works on that topic such as Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the most produced play of the twentieth century.
The novel leaves questions unresolved about how Marta will move forward, which Smiley suggests Undset could not answer at age twenty-four. Undset apparently found the answers as she went through her own unhappy marriage. The issue of religious faith is another interesting discussion in the introduction—Marta is an atheist in the novel—yet Undset, who lived in a country where Lutheranism was the state religion, would eventually convert to Catholicism. I was left wishing I knew what became of Marta. Fortunately, I don’t think, like Anna Karenina, she will throw herself in front of a train.

MM

Editor’s Note: Tichelaar is the author of The Best Place. All books reviewed are available in local and online bookstores. Click here for book review submission guidelines.

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