Corn Exchange by Helen Vitoria

cornexchangeCorn Exchange
Helen Vitoria
Wild Chestnut Press
November, 2013
ISBN 978-1493725304

Helen Vitoria’s full-length collection of poetry creates a landscape of mountains, mines, and pear trees. With our speaker, we look for Jupiter’s moons in the distance; we lay in meadows of wild flowers. We are always surrounded by birdsong and always aware of the mine fire burning underground in Centralia—the Pennsylvania ghost town whose population has dwindled since the fire began in 1962. These poems exist in between the death of a town and the “field [that] was a bed.” Nature becomes the image of conception and new life, as the human becomes deadly or death itself.

With these landscapes and images, Vitoria weaves a fairy tale-like scene that is always genuine, always a tiny bit fantastic. The speaker’s eye is unrelenting, noticing everything from the “canine teeth” in the poem “Kissing Anne Sexton” to the “hummingbird wings” in “small.”

“small” is surprisingly one of the largest poems in this collection. Vitoria plays with form, moving between three-page poems like “small” and the tiniest poems. The poems are woven together like a bird’s nest and, as readers, we always feel secure in the poet’s hands, even in the most surreal situations. Take “canary” (first published on The Scrambler) for example:

Adam doesn’t leave the garden so he sends
me. I bring back a song or coal dust, cigarette
butts for nesting, something shiny for the
magpies. Most days I return slightly bruised,
wings blackened. Either way, I enter, willingly,
blindly.

In this six lines, so many worlds converge. Our speaker becomes a bird, capable of song and flight. The real underground fire becomes a metaphorical fire. Everything is full of song and coal dust. Our speaker shares her own confusion, and takes agency: either way, her actions are her own decision. With her, we enter willingly, and with the dulling of one sense comes the sharpening of another.

So many of these poems are propelled by birdsong. As readers, all of our senses are engaged, especially sound. A lark sings and so does a mermaid. A young girl (Phoebe) becomes a small bird (phoebe). This is a collection of exchange and transformation; growth and change. There is always singing, if not in the foreground, than in the distance.

Vitoria leads us through this alternately beautiful and decaying world with vivid imagery and associative leaps. Take the prose poem “Untitled” for example. It begins with the speaker receiving “a letter back from Santiago filled with geranium dust and twigs.” The flowers are dead and ground to dust, the trees have broken into twigs, even the relationship has no name (Untitled). We learn only tiny bits of information: “[i]t’s been years since…slender glasses filled with port.”

Vitoria is skilled in letting the image tell the story. By the end of this particular poem and the entire collection, we are left with “[o]nly this. We have never appeared smaller.”

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