The Apollonia Poems, by Judith Vollmer
The University of Wisconsin Press, 2017. 69 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna Lang
In “The Vowel,” Judith Vollmer asks the woman on an Etruscan sarcophagus,
to what myth
did I first lose myself?
This is the central question of a collection that braids the story of Vollmer’s grandmother into a multi-faceted myth of Apollonia: at once “a deity of light called The Destroyer,” a Third Century A.D. martyr and saint, and a constellation of ancient cities including Pollina in Italy. Her grandmother was born in Pollina, where a Polish soldier fighting for Prussia “bought” her and took her back with him to Poland:
My soldier built our house tucked under a hill
set up above the mushroom woods
He came home walking back from the train after the war
He loved me once each night
Again in the morning so we wouldn’t forget
The Apollonia poems speak to each other across different sections in the book, and comment not only on her grandmother’s history and the various dimensions of the Apollonia figure, but also on her mother’s difficult move out of her own house into “the place,” where she was not reconciled to living. At different moments, they speak in her grandmother’s voice, in her mother’s voice, and in the voice of her childhood memories. As a result, the poems are complex, deeply layered, but at the same time conversational and emotionally accessible.
Not all the poems in the book evoke Apollonia. There is a brief section that takes a similar approach to her father’s story, moving from an examination of his old Polaroids to quotations from letters written when he was working to repair the reactor at the Fermilab in Piedmont, Italy, and then to the speaker’s walk along the pedestrian stairways of Pittsburgh, the town where she grew up among extended family, where she continues to live. That walk echoes a poem in the first section where the speaker walks up ancient stairs to the Gelateria Miami in Rome. Everything in this book echoes everything else. In another poem in the first section, “Two Women,” Vollmer remembers Betsy, her close friend from the days of young adulthood when they worked together as journalists, and read, and drank, and didn’t sleep. During that time, Vollmer interviewed Margaret Drabble, whom the two friends revered; but the tapes turned out to be garbled and then Vollmer lost the fragmentary transcripts she had been able to partially reconstruct. She never published that interview, but the rediscovered notes show up as the penultimate piece in this collection, in the same form as the letters her father wrote from Italy. Another lineage, this time literary; another voice speaking out of another myth.
None of these interconnections are laid out in a linear narrative. The spaces inside the poems and between the poems leave room for mystery, for memory, for grieving and for love. The title of one poem in the Apollonia Sequence is a question in her mother’s voice: “Why Are You Wearing Your Father’s Sweater?” She answers in the first lines,
The patterns are telling me something.
And I’m still grieving.
It is not only the patterns in her father’s sweater that tell her things, but the patterns that knit all human stories together, the familial and the mythic and the historical. Judith Vollmer makes room for all of our losses as she grieves her own.
Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such publications as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, American Life in Poetry and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language. Among her current projects is Self-Portraits, a chapbook collection of ekphrastic poems focused on women artists. She lives with her husband in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.