Making peace with enigma

Rinse, by Elaine Terranova

5 minute read
Book cover: title & author in plain black & brown text below an impressionistic painting of a cliff by the ocean.

The title, Rinse, evokes cleansing and catharsis. It also suggests the detritus that is loosed along the way. Philly-born poet Elaine Terranova plays with that metaphor in this, her eighth book, with sections that match the cycles of a washing machine: Water Level, On, Permanent Press, Rinse, Spin.

I might label the collection “churn.” Because the poems here—often moving, sometimes frustratingly opaque—seem less a progression through a measurable cycle, from soiled to spun-clean, as a constant turning, the sacred and the stained impossible to scrub apart.

Terranova’s 2021 memoir, The Diamond Cutter’s Daughter, showed her poetic sensibilities: lyrical language, some sections no more than a single page capturing a moment or feeling.

Not surprisingly, Rinse includes many pieces that occupy the borderland between free verse and prose: allusive, rhythmic, and compressed. As with the memoir, a reader must make peace with absence and enigma. Themes emerge and ebb, images accrue, silences thrum with what’s unsaid.

Short memoirs and prose

In the book’s prefatory list-poem, “Short Memoirs of Life on Earth,” Terranova writes, “—It seems I can’t think one thought without/an earlier one shining through—.” That could serve as the modus operandi for the entire book—pentimento, as in a painting whose earlier marks show, ghost-like, through the thinned pigment above.

“Short Memoirs of Life on Earth” begins with a personal revelation—“I grew up in a house/where there was no money for anything but food/and maybe orthopedic shoes”—then travels to the cosmic, an almost-elegy for Earth itself:

Oh, Earth! During the recent eclipse
how naked you seemed without your star.
I feared if the sun collapsed
you’d only grow colder, harder, darker

yet new stars are born all the time
in clusters, like litters of kittens

I found the prose-poems harder to enter, perhaps because their form—they look like long paragraphs on the page, with margins left- and right-justified—led me to expect narrative coherence and clarity. But Terranova breaks that expectation again and again with freewheeling associations (that “earlier thought shining through”) and the loose logic of dreams.

“Tomato Man,” for instance, reads like the transcript of a mind in vivid REM-stage sleep: the title’s character, who at first sounds like an Italian Market vendor, morphs into a tractor-driving patriot flying a ripped American flag from his fender, then a paranoiac in a gas mask, and finally to a motivational speaker in a cinderblock building, “his voice and a hologram of his person bouncing around the room electronically.”

In three paragraphs, we’ve moved from the “plump, ripe globes” of tomatoes to the disembodied fragments of a digital age. A commentary on our increasingly AI-generated world? A lament that traditional ways of commerce—buying the earth’s bounty, face to face, from those who grew it—have yielded to anonymous, online consumption?

Surrender to the strangeness

Readers may appreciate such pieces more when they stop seeking story and surrender to the strangeness, the ellipses, the dissonance of dreams.

In “Anticipation,” which begins, “We must visit them, they’re old,” I was never quite sure who “they” were … or “we,” though the poem refers to an elusive “L, by now my friend, mysteriously gone.”

The speaker finds herself in a lobby “lined with pews and people, pale, old people, who sat and keened on the dark wood benches,” while, in another room, a crowd at cocktail tables buzzes with talk between musicians’ sets. What rises from this piece is its emotional tone, melancholy twinned with cherishing—the anticipation, perhaps, of a sorrow that awaits us all.

Anxiety and violence

I was drawn to poems that employed shorter lines, with caesuras, line breaks, and stanzas making a staccato thrum that seemed to match the flitting content. There are whole stories in the white spaces of Terranova’s poems; I felt intrigued by what’s not stated.

“In Here” resonated for me (as a person who has experienced destabilizing anxiety) as a poem about the kind of mental state that isolates a person from the world. It begins with a steadfast refusal, the rhyme of “go” and “no,” then the startling image of blinds that sound like knitting needles, fashioning comfort and suffocation at the same time.

I can’t. I couldn’t
go, no
not out there, outside,
with the dim
light on always.

The blinds click
like needles
knitting something
to close me off.

Loss permeates these poems: the vanishing of childhood, of connection to nature, of creative possibilities unrealized.

And violence lurks. In “17,” the “handsome boss” takes his young typing-pool assistant dancing in a white pavilion; all is dreamy until—and here, one must literally turn the page—“he dropped me home/with bruises on my arms/and a torn dress.”

In “Street Voices,” nostalgic cameos of childhood flip over to reveal a darker truth: Mr. Melon, the neighbor who lived between two young girls and spent factory nights “imagining them, and in the day he was free/to mind on his lap one or the other/while a mother went to the store.” Houses conceal “a low moan” or a “vault of secrets,” and the memory of a seven-year-old’s birthday party is shortly followed by the discovery of a dead bird on the next block.

The churning ocean

And yet. The final piece, “Beach Dreaming,” seems to be the voice of a poet who has made rough peace between the flawed and fleeting present and the irrecoverable past. She conjures a “cramped beach, not very pretty … But it’s my beach, the one I’ve dreamt into being where I’m happy to find myself, watching the ocean flow in all its unexpected directions.”

Soon, her restive mind will turn again to scour where she’s been before, to seek a “you” she’ll never find. But for that moment, on that imagined beach, the churning ocean is enough.

What, When, Where

Rinse. By Elaine Terranova. Boston: Grid Books, 2023. 107 pages, paperback; $18. Get it on

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