Past-Tensing: A Review of Andrea Scarpino’s Once, Then
by Amy Elisabeth Hansen
My gramps died slowly over three years. Toward the end, my husband and I made the eight-hour drive from Marquette, Michigan, to suburban Chicago as often as possible to sit with him for a couple hours. I read Andrea Scarpino’s book of poetry, Once, Then, three times in the car, and again in my mom’s living room right after Gramps died in late April.
I don’t think anyone turns to elegies for comfort, and I didn’t find any in Once, Then. What I did find was the narrative distance to approach my own grief. The elegies are personal and specific; they draw on Scarpino’s father's career as a microbiologist, detail his habits. They remember a friend, Gracie. The poems give life and story to personal, political, past and mythological deaths.
Once, Then opens with a quote from Thomas Lynch: “Life goes on. The dead are everywhere.” Scarpino writes to make lost lives go on. Her poems are a cementing of memories, a monument to people and times past. The dead and the lost are everywhere in Once, Then, and they were everywhere for me this year, too.
My favorite move in Once, Then is the interruption of one loss with another, as if a new death can provide relief from the last. So what I looked for, then, as I read and reread, drove away and drove home, was the takeaway truth, the three or four words I could write on my hand. I wanted something small and serious that said, “This is what I’m feeling.” That instinct to find the takeaway is a reminder of what I’m trying to do when I write poems myself. Poets try to dilute what’s huge and seemingly unsayable into something small and emotionally portable. When Gramps died, I wanted to use poems as summary for everything I couldn’t say; Once, Then is what I had on hand. I kept coming back to “Omniscience” to read
…Palms opened to say wait. Palms opened against knife blade. Break, God said. And breaking spread.
Reading aloud is a family tradition for us. Gramps recorded hours and hours of children’s stories on cassettes for my brothers and me to listen to before bed. As the family writer, I felt (invented) pressure to find a poem to read at Gramps’s funeral. But there is no word written that I love as much as him, so I said nothing. I wanted reading aloud to be something we did when Gramps was alive, not something we continued to do, too, when he was dead. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge with words the difference his absence made on my life. I didn’t want to past-tense my gramps with my favorite thing.
Your tissues everywhere like snow, stuck to our clothes, dimpled wash bin. Handfuls in your pockets, everywhere you go. Everywhere you went.
I feel the absence of Scarpino’s father in the poem, but I also feel him in front of it, and not only because of the second-person address. I feel the abruptness, the finality of the entire past-tense sentence on the last line. These poems work like gifts, maybe less about the yous, hes and shes than they are for them. Scarpino places the subject in front of the poem, rather than containing him within it, which is how Once, Then can wrap itself around so much loss.
Once, Then is personal, and I’ve struggled to write this review because of it. I gravitate toward poems that make a hiding place for the hard stuff, and Andrea Scarpino doesn’t play that game. But for that reason, I moved closer to understanding my grief. These poems helped me, and that’s the highest praise I can give.
Amy Elisabeth Hansen's poems have appeared in 580 Split and a handful of now-defunct publications. She is an associate poetry editor for Passages North and is excited to start her second year in Northern Michigan University's MFA program.