Book Review

Diane Mehta’s Tiny Extravaganzas is an exploration of muses and isolation, and with references to Milton, Dante, and Whitman, her imagistic poems push language and forms to their extremes. Uniting the poems and creating a deep sense of fluidity is the inherent focus on the role art plays in living and existing in a world where memory and artistic appreciation are short-lived.

“Cypress” is a four-stanza powerhouse in which the speaker’s isolation fully immerses readers. It opens with a discreet moment of introspection: “I fretted in the night, working blips and sonic code.” The first stanza holds a quietly compelling message about the saving grace offered by the act of writing as the speaker reflects that “the clack of typing would hold off ancient ghosts.” Impressive, too, is the speaker’s reliance on warlike imagery such as “window-rattling” and the militaristic description “my mind in turrets.” The balance of discreet introspection with subtle military images reinforces for readers the speaker’s sense of isolation. As the poem continues with “All terror banging,” a sense of disconnect from reality emerges as the speaker observes, “Portraits left their hooks to wander landscapes on their hooks.” This sensorial disconnect creates a dreamlike surrealism that deepens as the speaker observes the night and its trappings of “dead leaves and young bats” as well as “Cypress trees positioned in the windowframe as usual / talking about the universe.” The personification of the cypress trees establishes a different, transcendental relationship between the speaker and nature. This relationship is accentuated as the poem concludes, and the final stanza’s succinctness solidifies it:

What an arrangement of peculiars, these cypresses
bending about, singing cantatas of the forest world
while I’m locked in up here with blip and code,
unfettering letters from their words.

The speaker’s anecdotes reinforce the speaker’s sense of isolation, as well as their inescapable binds with words and language. However, the stanza also bares a stark warning about how technology’s overabundance frequently overshadows the respite and silence nature offers.

A similar sentiment emerges in “Reading Thom Gunn’s Lament.” The poem alludes to the Thom Gunn elegy, and similarly to Gunn’s elegy, Mehta’s poem expresses extreme grief. Fortifying the extreme grief is the poem’s compact, three-stanza form. The structure, along with the condensed lines, compress the language and imagery. Enjambment creates a gentle, yet forceful, exposé of the speaker’s empathy with the emotions of Gunn’s poem. This is particularly noticeable in the second stanza:

His loss was restless, no repose
for endings, intractable and cruel,
and even then, it took me in, a reprise
of grief uncomprehending, the way it crawls.

As one reads, one cannot help but notice the sonic resonance at play in the poem. “Repose” and “reprise,” carefully placed at the ends of the first and third lines, create an echo effect that simulates a sense of haunting. “Cruel” and “crawl” also echo one another, and the line structures separating the two words create a distinctive fluidity so that the lines seem to bleed one into the other until stopping momentarily at “crawls.” However, the pause does not last long, and readers are gently lifted into the final stanza. This stanza’s voice reverberates with the introspective, isolated voice in “Cypress”:

around you but is now where in particular,
finds renewal, and takes some getting used to.
Isn’t it true that absence is a reticulated
presence, its shade the shadow following you?

The rhyming of “to” and “you” create a sonic, and emotional, solidification in the poem. The penultimate line’s reliance on the word “absence,” which—intentionally or unintentionally—centers the line, is cleverly juxtaposed with “presence,” which opens the final line. Thus, a sense of completion emerges, though the lingering rhetorical question leaves readers in a philosophical state.

“Bunches of a Nest” opens with the speaker’s beautiful anecdote of self-awareness: “What I started opposes what I shattered.” Just as in “Reading Thom Gunn’s Lament,” linguistic reverberance is an imperative part of this poem’s musicality. With its images of marigolds growing “underground in silence” and its “Flutter-bees of temporary insanity,” the poem is a masterful feat of emotional and artistic display. The speaker gorgeously articulates, “I love you back with echoes of alternative languages” and describes a “soul in clementine, looking for the gravity.” What readers might observe is that rather than freezing in one’s isolation, this poem breaks the barriers isolation imposed in previous poems. As it concludes, readers see the speaker develop a unique type of self-acceptance as they “walk like a beautiful petrified shell of a woman” and exist “Inside the fabric of my feelings.” The poem is sprinkled, too, with philosophical anecdotes regarding the continuity of time which relentlessly entraps and ensnares: “To what end are endings, to what end do we?”

In Tiny Extravaganzas, even the most difficult of human emotions and experiences are worth capturing. In Baudelarian fashion, Mehta blends life’s grittiest states of being with surrealist observations to create complex steps for readers to follow. In places where “the slug is dead and the snails have retracted,” readers find a dark beauty in the cracks and minute spaces so many tend to ignore.

About the Reviewer

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is the Humanities Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.