When Poems Uncurl The Mysteries Of Life Through The Fiddlehead Fern: An Incisive Review Of 'The World In Shadow'

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When Poems Uncurl The Mysteries Of Life Through The Fiddlehead Fern: An Incisive Review Of 'The World In Shadow'

Kashiana Singh reviews Dreams in Isolation: The World in Shadow: Poems of Hope and Resilience by Melissa Chappell.

Melissa’s poems feel like a lyrical window in her quarantined room from where she can take a peek at everything from a curling fiddlehead to the ‘end of the world’.

The fiddlehead fern seems a favorite of Chappell’s and is now mine too. I wonder why? By the time I get to the end of the collection, I think I know why this poet reaches out for the everlasting language of a fiddlehead. The fern that curls like a fiddle – creating music. The fern that is older than the oldest animal itself – inspiring resistance. The fern that recreates itself through spores – teaching resurgence.

Melissa Chappell’s voice in Dreams of Isolation (Alien Buddha Press) has a mysterious timber to it – urgent, yet in slow motion. One that holds the readers’ hand through each poem, gently and invisibly taking us in and out of quarantined rooms, leaving us gasping in the poems that adorn each passageway.

Throughout the journey, each poem stares at me like an egret, hopping from page to page, paying homage, asking questions, moving through time, and from ocean to ocean. There are many occasions where the reader is moved to remember -

how once we curled,
small, like a fiddlehead fern,
forgetting everything,
forgetting everything.

Chappell moves through a variety of different sentiments in the poems, but a recurring thread is a reinforcement of all emotions that come with a pause – slow yet sensuous; silently pondering words inform us about a weariness. Some of these poems shadow a Dickensian voice, offering a reminder of mortality.

The beauty of this work, however, shines in the fact that it is an uncertain canvas permeated with embroidery, stitched with hope and sustainability.

In “Time follows Time”, Chappell epitomizes this aching with strong independent images as the poem rises in a crescendo of emotions. My favorite is the beginning – simple, strong, mesmerizing -

“Time follows time, just as the vining jasmine follows the trellis outside the open window.”

As the title of the book suggests, these poems have an underlying and irrevocable connection to the trauma of our unsettled times but the poems are not about mourning – they uplift. Melissa looks directly into the eye of the crisis faced by humanity and treats this encounter with a strange combination of bravery and kindness. Her clear voice comes to a rising echo in “Red” and “Tender Are the Mercies

“We used to go there on days so dry, a prayer could crack the sky”
“Perhaps the three holy days did still strive together in me. Tender is the blade of the word that can break the red clay of my heart. Tender are the mercies that heal it.”

The poetry collection, on the whole, is a cohesive calling of attentiveness - an aria. Evocative in theme as well as style, rising and falling in emotion as in operatic performance, each poem appeals to be read aloud – the book as a whole, and each poem possesses a rare recitative quality. They perform themselves on a stage, releasing their own voice like the continuous movement of an aria!

And then the poet becomes an aria herself in “First Time Sung”

“I am an aria; I am the cardinal’s blazing song, I am the first time sung”

Some poems revolve around the Chappell’s inconvenient memories yet the us in these poems could be anyone who has ever wondered where home was or has ever witnessed how language, countries, colors, labels make the definition of us so fragile. Chappell opens her experience into something the world is feeling most piercingly in current times when she says,

“Language was like the ocean between us: You spoke Slovak, and I, English.” – The Inconvenient Us

Ocean, Water that stretches between bodies of land, bodies of lovers, bodies of communities symbolizes separation for Chappell. The poet deftly moves beyond the personal to the universal while not letting go of the simplicity of her poetic lens. “The End of the World” and “Inconvenient Us” could very well be a migrant hymn in their cross oceanic journey to find the beginning of a new world. The goosebumps I experienced with these lines required me to pause my reading.

“The shadows rise now, where once stood the bounding trees, a bookshelf, the dresser, the nightstand, the tall door, harboring light. You are oceans away from my touch. And the world continues and continues and continues.” – The End of the World

Any reading of Dreams of Isolation will be incomplete without reference to the two poems in memory of her father and mother. Chappell, in “Timbered Dreams” steps into a very vulnerable space as she calls upon her father’s memories to bear witness to her passions -

“Like barbed wire, you are tangled up throughout these pages, leading me from here to there”

In “A Borrowed Light”, Chappell again refers to “the surly oceans of this world” as she speaks to her mother’s memory in a manner of a formal send off, allowing her to leave – a release.

The last poem of the book walks into the “Simple Light”. I imagined Chappell kneeling, in prayer, not expecting answers as she leads herself and a broken world into the light. In this poem, she again curls herself like a fiddlehead fern -

Like a fiddlehead fern I curl myself, and sleep in his wounds.”

This is a book that must be read, in some small way it will be a step towards confronting your own shadows, finding your own fiddlehead ferns. As I put it down with a promise to come back to it and discover pieces of my own self that are still waiting to be uncovered within Chappell’s poems, I cannot but be reminded of John Updike’s “Spring Song” from Paul Salerni’s Flora, which can be watched here .

The fiddlehead ferns down by our pond
stand like the stems of violins
The worms are playing beneath the moss.
Last autumn's leaves are pierced by shoots
that turn from sickly-pale to green.
All growth's a slave, and rot is boss.


Kashiana Singh is a management professional by job classification and a work practitioner by personal preference. Kashiana’s TEDx talk was dedicated to Work as Worship. Her poetry collection, Shelling Peanuts and Stringing Words presents her voice as a participant and an observer. Her second chapbook, Crushed Anthills by Yavanika Press is a journey through 10 cities – each city offering a complex maze of remembrances to unravel. Her poems have been published on various platforms including Poets Reading the News, Visual Verse Oddball Magazine, Café Dissensus, TurnPike Magazine, Dissident Voice, Feminine Collective, Counter-Currents, Poetry Super Highway. Kashiana is from India and now lives in Chicago.

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