Review: “Free Ferry”
Free Ferry, by Ann Cefola
Upper Hand Press, 2016, 68 pages, $15
The problem with reviewing a poetry book like Ann Cefola’s Free Ferry has nothing to do with the quality of the work — the poems are a flurry of vivid, imaginative images that will remain caught in readers’ heads. The problem with reviewing a book like Free Ferry is that half the fun of reading it comes from the joy of uncovering its secrets.
Free Ferry follows the story of Eurydice and Orpheus’ child as she journeys through a 20th-century, middle-class lifestyle, as well as the story of “Dr. –” (who remains nameless) and his creation of plutonium — and, by consequence, the atomic bomb. The two tales run parallel to one another at the top and bottom of each page — a bold choice by Cefola that forces readers to clue in on the interplay between the stories. Eurydice asking “How could the sky / swallow young men whole?” to reflect on the process of growing old takes on a much darker meaning in the context of an atomically fueled World War II and Cold War setting.
As Cefola is quite aware and mentions in her opening poem, “You might say, Eurydice and Orpheus never had kids, and you’d be right.” Immediately, she sets up an important question that persists throughout the hypothetical realm within her poems: What would have happened to Eurydice and Orpheus had Orpheus never looked back? This question seeps into the story of “Dr. –”, who presses on with his research and at no point stops to ask himself if there will be consequences to his discovery. Cefola points out this fatal flaw in her poem, “[ties]”: “The peculiar quality of genius / ignores limits set by others: doing / something because it can be done.” The book quickly transforms from a mesmerizing, modern depiction of a famous myth into a dissection of the institution of marriage. Indeed, much like the painted cow that Cefola describes in “[moo],” a portion of Free Ferry is “decidedly feminine” and centred on the complex roles taken by women in the marriage relationship: “every wife lost until one / on TV screams into a plate / I can see myself!” But the women in these poems are strong and, like their knives and scissors, “want their edges sharp.” Cefola carves out a space for women to retain a portion of their autonomy in the often restrictive, suburban world she depicts.
With Free Ferry, Cefola generates a looming darkness that hovers over each of her poems. From the growing cracks in Eurydice and Orpheus’s marriage to the threat of nuclear annihilation, Cefola expertly balances the mundanity of everyday life with the fear that it could all be lost in an instant, all the while threading a captivating mystery on the nature of the relationship between Eurydice’s family and the mysterious “Dr. –”. Free Ferry is not only an exploration of the Orpheus myth, but a modern retelling of the Pandora’s Box tale — and, as a collection, is “charged like a god’s hot breath.”