Frozen Charlotte by Susan de Sola. San Jose, CA: Able Muse Press, 2019. ISBN 9781773490373 (paper).
Reviewed by Joyce Wilson
The poems in Susan de Sola’s first book Frozen Charlotte exemplify the author’s dexterity with craft and taste for variety, in which each subject has found the perfect vehicle. While her purpose is not autobiography, the poems constitute a palpable sense of self. Organized into five parts, with each introduced by an italicized fragment that entices but does not explain, the collection accumulates experiences, examining things in respective interiors—a favorite doll in a child’s bath, a vase of flowers in a dining room—and by taking trips to nearby destinations, such as a shop, museum, or flower market. Movement within and between poems serves to alleviate a sense of stasis throughout and suggests the type of struggle necessary to overcome paralysis as it is experienced in everyday encounters.
The doll in the title poem “Frozen Charlotte” was, in Victorian times, a popular gift that came
with propaganda attached, to warn young girls about the perils of vanity. Inspired by a poem and folk ballad, both based on a story that
appeared in an 1840 newspaper, “Fair Charlotte” preferred to show off the finery of her dress rather than cover up with blankets as she rode in an open sleigh to a ball in the middle of winter. The result was that she froze to death. De Sola’s poem takes the point of view of the doll as artifact looking back, “I died of cold.” Written in cinquains (ababb) of uniform tetrameter lines as if to complicate ballad form intentionally, the verses emphasize the matter-of-fact progress of the story that minimizes hope for escape. This doll testifies that she is stuck. Although inert and corpse-like, and having lost her finery,
she voices awareness of the role she plays in changing times. As if she knows that she is being used, the doll comments, “I fortify their frozen hearts,” chastising the Victorians for their cruelty. Then she declares, “I’m getting warmer now,” as if to welcome the modern and post-modern ages, in which beauty is celebrated to excess and vanity seldom punished at all, much less by death. (One might remember that Charlotte, besides being the name for a girl, is also a dessert.) Still, the fact of the doll being bought and sold, “safe for play—no moving parts” (75) sends an updated warning to women and girls about being caught in roles bound to the past, frozen in a passivity they cannot control, and lacking agency to get out and live.
De Sola frequently takes her poems out of the house, where one can enter another place and
time just by opening the door of a shop. In a borough of New York (where she grew up), she discovers a room that prompts the question: “Little Russia, Little Odessa, little something?”
I slip into a Georgian place
While this interior conveys exotic intimacies, she leaves the shop cloaked in anonymity, certain that no one will recognize her, the person she has become.
where grandeur is for sale.
The carpets are a rich maroon,
the true color of carpet, and beneath tinkling
chandeliers, a disco ball for hot Georgian nights
to many of which the walls testify.
(“At Brighton Beach,” 6)
Assimilation did its dissemination
half a century back—
thick then with familiarity,
(“At Brighton Beach,” 7)
With the paradoxical exposition in assimilate versus disseminate, amid all the detail, de Sola juxtaposes elements of her past even as she sheds them like worn out skin. (De Sola now lives in The Netherlands with her husband and family.)
In another interior, the shopkeeper behind the counter repels as she fascinates. “It was as if she lived inside a closet” (45), the narrator observes, where delicate undergarments were the stuff of her trade. The woman sells finery with a coarse demeanor.
Her voice, it seemed, had licked a thousand ashtrays,
spat out a thousand butts. She was big-busted
and tall, with bleach-dead hair—no longer young.
This was her lair, a small select boutique
of silken panties, bras with bows and lace.
(“An Agony of Silk,” 45)
The interior rhyme “hair” and “lair” form a pleasing echo to the exterior vowel sounds of “ashtrays” and “lace.” The woman herself seems diminished, her body wasted, her future bleak, in service to women who are heavy, broad of beam, bulging against pleats and seams. Shown amid the delicacy of
fabrics and pastel colors, she is “an agony of angel skin in tints of silk” (45). De Sola ends with a quiet illumination:
the shopkeeper knows her customers.
She wraps the neat, consolatory boxes
and ties them up with silken, black lace bows,
for those who, never naked, dress to undress.
(“An Agony of Silk,” 46)
De Sola’s portrait shows the precise dedication and love of beautiful fabric that sustain the lonely woman and bring her comfort in service
to a standard of beauty that many aspire to but few can own. She is the aging face in the mirror, framed with sympathy and generosity.
To write about tulips carries a great deal of weight, from its history and troubled economy
to previous treatments by other poets. The intense saturated petal color of tulips, unparalleled in other flowers, was once a status symbol, and led to an economic collapse in 1637. For those of us who have read Sylvia Plath, tulips became fixed in our minds as excitable, hurtful flowers in a hospital room. De Sola does not pitch her poem on a precipice, economic or psychological, but she does begin with the acknowledgment that cut flowers, separated from their life-giving stems, are linked to death. Yet as a symbol, they do not stagnate.
Bought at a farmer’s field, once unwrapped and placed in a vase, these tulips exhibit
a mystical power which is regarded with a humorous nod. “For days we took delight in their postmortem /magic” (66). The flowers have their
own strength, a beauty that requires no proof of usefulness. These “great goblets” of color “anchored down the table, held center stage, just like an aria” (66).
But when, as cut flowers do, they begin a descent into decay, de Sola focuses on their transformation: “The tiny tulip-/print anticipates its slide into symbol” (66). The petals fall off the stems and reveal patterns not before observed. They become abstract and stimulate the imagination. What they lose in vitality they gain in character. De Sola personifies the appearance of the thing:
A Dutch-bobbed slouching flapper of a flower,
so modernist and sleek, a silhouette.
A flower a cartoonist might invent.
(“The Tulips,” 66)
As the petals fall, they continue to stimulate connections in which they play a part in the lives of those around them. A selection of verbs—plunging, thumping, pause—with the sharp k consonants dramatize their role on the dining room table.
Blowsy, lipsticked interlocutors;
drunken smacks, and dried-out goodbye kisses.
(“The Tulips,” 67)
The tulip never was a dainty flower but a full-fleshed specimen, feminine and maternal, ready to give the warmest farewell. Through their magnificent presence, they vibrate with personality and exert energies even as they fade.
Embracing the things of this world, de Sola has assembled a collection of poems that describe a rich life, richly lived. She creates a dynamic in each poetic setting, where a fear of stasis is resolved by an exhilaration of movement, with a balance of humor and gravity, over and over, in patient succession.
Copyright © Joyce Wilson 2020.