Shakespeare’s Ophelia is an evocative figure of suffering, of men’s betrayal of women, as especially expressed within court patriarchy. The famed play finds her crushed by the cruelty and self-interests of her father, her brother, Hamlet, and Hamlet’s mother. She could have fought. She did not. Circumstances and times preventing her, she could only choose death. Hers was a situation where neither obedience nor opposition made a difference. Gillian Cummings’s The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter expands on Ophelia’s story, updating and illuminating the tragic story for us. These are poems for everyday women, women who have undergone similar oppression, who are suffering from trauma and depression. As a solution, Cummings deftly depicts nature and its power to heal.
John Yau selected The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter as the winner of the 2018 Colorado Prize for Poetry, giving praise to its Keatsian musicality, declaring Gillian Cummings a chameleon poet inhabiting light, dark, sun, moon, earth, sea, writing through each of these places, these feelings. Recipient of the Dorothy Sargent Rosenbery Memorial Fund Poetry Prize in 2008, Cummings’s poetry has appeared in many journals, like Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, yet she hasn’t gained the recognition and readership she deserves. A practicing Zen Buddhist, she’s also a visual artist of the natural world. In a recent interview (The Denver Guide), she talks about the difficulty to write as “I”—a concept I recognized from Japanese culture and language. Though drawn from her personal experience, Cummings’s poems are distant, masked in personae. She is a grand, selfless writer, as Keats’s “Letter to Woodhouse” describes.
Cummings’s “Of the Notebook’s Eyes” uses pairing, or duality, questioning the possibility of, illuminating the contradiction of simultaneously existing and not existing. She expertly employs contrasts and opposites, not to mention namelessness, said pairs establishing distance (fleabanes, loosestrife), each cluster expanding into triplets (granite, moss, stream), each triplet further paired with objects (window, room, door). The only singular word is “asylum,” a place where a gypsy moth, too, can be read as a duality:
Try to not exist, says the gypsy, weaving
white through wind. Red clover. Timid
fleabanes, too scared to widen beyond
their small, spiked circles. A doe and fawn
sauntering through a field of loosestrife, lost
to sky’s names. Can you be in the ten thousand
things and not be? says the granite grown
mossy, licheny, over the stream swirling
into shapes she scribbles in the asylum.
She draws to keep the window closed.
Yet open. She lives to learn no window,
no room, no door. She lives to learn nothing.
And yet clover. And yet loosestrife. And yet foam.
Such riddles—Cummings is a brilliant puzzle maker—can be found throughout the book, which is artfully arranged into four parts. Sections one and three are sonnets, but in matter they contrast, for section one and two are dark, the former dealing with suicide, depression, while section three questions the idea of life after coma, or hope. Written in prose, section two is Cummings’s reimagination of Ophelia’s experiences in her time, the degeneration of a woman’s mind due to patriarchy, reflecting a continuity, a combination of the old and the new, criticizing a patriarchy that still exists today.
The “madness” in section two has strength and power. Ophelia becomes mad after the murder of her father, the cruelty of Prince Hamlet, madness her escape and weapon against the injustice done to her. Might as well let insanity be the norm these poems seem to say, Hamlet’s imposition and false perceptions foregrounded, appearances entrenched, death certain.
Ophelia speaks of the baker’s daughter, who was disobedient to god and was turned into an owl. She sings songs of madness. Cummings carries Ophelia’s voice further, with prose of sense and senselessness approaching true madness, for she hopes readers will experience complexity and disorientation, such “complex chaos” evinced in lines like:
Moon-pearls low on meadows do not a summer’s shine mean. But sometimes, before silver filigrees flowers in dawn’s frost, a blur of mist makes most believable the beauty even of those long blooms of prurient purples shepherds called orchid—or what, I can’t say. I look not far in the dark. Nor would I risk but daisies …
There are many other such astonishing lines, Cummings skillfully demonstrating what madness looks like in language.
Thus this poem cannot be read with the reasoning, analytical mind. A reader with knowledge of Hamlet would be able to recognize Ophelia, what she is thinking, feeling, her unspoken words, betraying unwritten thoughts, feelings unexplored, secrets surfacing. Cummings’s perspicuity offers a new understanding of Hamlet. That said, a reader unfamiliar with Ophelia will hear echoes of a modern woman’s voice, someone intelligently struggling with madness, Ophelia, though, resurrected, the “She” in these poems always a multiplicity, recalling Op Art’s dual or hidden images, and the work of the artist Bridget Riley, whose painting Kiss, Will Gompertz (2015) writes in Think Like an Artist, uses black and white and simple lines to show three distinct shapes “to express the unequal and dynamic nature of relationships—spatial, formal and human: a tense interaction she reflected in the painting’s title …”
Section two closes with a poem expanding on Ophelia’s line about the baker’s daughter. The poem is perfect: it’s exactly what Ophelia means in the text, the poems detailing a fall into illness and a recovery from same. Section three is about life after coma, life after depression. The poems here are bright, hopeful. “When World Is Whale,” for instance, foregrounds the eponymic aquatic mammal’s immensity. It’s a grand and profound poem where a whale symbolizes the world and its majestic, mysterious movements. We get a sense the world is opening, Cummings conjuring nature’s power, this reader subsequently healed along with her poems. But hope isn’t simple. In “Of the Light Before Darkness,” Cummings shares hope’s wisdom:
At dusk, we have a hope,
a famine we feign would be
plenty. The air doesn’t lift us
to the tops of the copper beeches.
The air wants, Wider, wider.
We open our arms
to a number that subtracts
what we hold from the zero
that binds us blind to bliss.
The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter is ultimately sad. Rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, woman or man—all life ends, and part of an artist’s work is to record it, to work against death, go beyond it. These truth-suffused poems are solace for people suffering from depression and trauma or suicide ideation. She is like Mitsuo Aida, whose work offers profound consolation to suicidal people. Ophelia lives again in The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, familiar, a friend to us, and is very much an important book, highly deserving of its award and far more, attesting to Gillian Cummings’s genius, a poet whose vital writing must be read.
The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, by Gillian Cummings. Louisville, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, November 2018. 79 pages. $13.95, paper.
Meiko Ko’s works have been accepted by Blue Lyra Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the AAWW, The Margins, The Literary Review, Columbia Journal, Epiphany, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities, Litro Magazine, and are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review. She was longlisted for the Home is Elsewhere Anthology 2017 Berlin Writing Prize. She lives with her husband and child in New York.