The Celery Forest. Catherine Graham (Wolsak & Wynn: Buckrider Books, 2017)

Review by P.W. Bridgman

After I read The Celery Forest the first time—from beginning to end in one sitting—I found my heart and mind awash with thought traces and imagery, questions and surmises, vicarious despair, vicarious hope and…more than anything, deep admiration. But one of the lingering questions was humiliatingly basic. Why The Celery Forest? (Surely this question will arise in the minds of most of Catherine Graham’s readers.) Despite much head scratching, re-reading and ruminating while staring off into space, answer came there none. The title’s linkage to the book’s challenging, primary subject matter (the poet’s breast cancer diagnosis received in the context of other, past experiences of trauma and loss) could not be fully discerned. “Forest,” certainly; that works perfectly well as a metaphor for the bewildering and dark thicket through which one must navigate one’s way toward remission from cancer.  But celery forest?

However, and at last, a little research solved the riddle. In June 2018, The Bangor Literary Journal—one of Northern Ireland’s strongest new literary periodicals—published an online interview of Catherine Graham. In it, she explained:

Shortly after the diagnosis, I saw a piece of artwork titled, ‘With an owl in a celery forest’ by Cora Brittan. The image of a girl in a red dress holding an owl at the entryway of a giant celery forest captivated me. My partner John Coates kindly bought me the mixed media piece. It now hangs in our bedroom. The image of an oversized celery forest in contrast to the smallness of the girl spoke deeply to my health situation. It became a visual way for me to understand something that I couldn’t quite verbalize. One day I started playing with the image through words. Out of this exploration came the poem, ‘Cancer in the Celery Forest.’ More poems came afterwards which led to the creation of my most recent poetry collection, The Celery Forest.

So there it is. The actual title could not ever have been divined or inferred from this brilliant book’s subject matter, at least not fully. The artwork that is referred to in the quotation above now, in fact, graces the book’s cover and, counterintuitively, it was the artwork that suggested the title (and not vice versa).

Enough prolegomena.

Grave, life-altering circumstances, when sought to be transmuted into art, place special demands upon the artist. This ground has been thoroughly, and often badly, travelled by many poets before. The pitfalls and hazards are legion and well-known. One need only turn to the obituary pages in one’s newspaper to be reminded of how, when aiming to do justice to mortality and the profundity of loss, recourse to cliché, other tired forms of expression and sentimental excesses can mar the efforts of kindly, well-meaning and plainly stricken people.  With that in mind, and in keeping with Graham’s own approach, readers of this review will find no references in it to “battles” or “journeys.”

A breast cancer diagnosis is quintessentially a grave and life-altering circumstance. Graham has lived through that experience and, in The Celery Forest, she has deftly avoided the shoals that challenge any poet who dares to confront it in her writing. In a word, Graham has transmuted the terrors of an encounter with cancer—and the hope that sometimes works to tame those terrors when remission is at hand—into pure art that is fierce, true and unsullied by platitudes and truisms. The Celery Forest is, thus, a rare and extraordinary creation: a selection of poems that is worthy of its profound subject matter.

Graham’s diagnosis, when first pronounced, was heard (she tells us) as a scream “…followed / by that cold, testing silence we wore / as shivers, as scales / down our back.”  There. By those carefully chosen words, has not the stage truly been set?

Birds richly populate this collection. Most often they are metaphors for the insidious flesh- and spirit-invading disease, as in the poem “What Birds They Were,” which reads (in part):

They arrive, a cloud with wings and a brain—
they soar and hover, land on the celery trees.

They cloak the leaves. Black fruit, seed eyes.
They become what they are—

human-watchers, staring at the frozen girl
strewn on the lawn…

Graham sees these ominous creatures “everywhere after the diagnosis. / Black knots in X-rays… / They stay high in the air, waiting / for breasts that never come back.”

Such artful and compelling evocations of menace make the skin crawl with dread. One’s heartbeat cannot but quicken as one ponders a pestilence that brings its evil to us by stealth, by merely watching from a distance with “seed eyes.”

Elsewhere in Graham’s poems, a particular type of bird—the owl (which in avian zoology is, in fact, a raptor)—carries a different signification. Its presence seems to herald the potential for redemption from cancer’s cruel depredations. The Celery Forest is a volume of poems wrought mainly in language that (like the language of Wallace Stevens, for example) is brilliantly and intriguingly circuitous. But when she speaks of the owl and the confidence she has in its ability to bring remission, Graham is searingly authoritative and direct. She doesn’t plead, she demands rather that the owl break ranks with its avian cousins and intervene for her benefit. The poem where she does so is entitled “Owl in the Celery Forest” and it warrants reproduction here in full:

Owl, you never asked to be wise
or a companion to the witch.

Fly in for the scurry—vole, field mouse,
creatures with eyes scuttling through grass.

Then pluck the tumour out of my breast
with your sharp, curved talons—

let the only thing that spreads be your wings.

In art as in life, singular events—whether they be triumphs or tragedies—are usually best comprehended and appreciated when set in context. Graham contextualises her illness’s trajectory from diagnosis to remission by hinting, here and there, at other times where her mettle has been tested. There are at least two references in The Celery Forest to a chance childhood encounter with what, during the time of my youth, would have been called a “flasher.” Clearly the experience has left its mark, as we should expect it to do. More important, one senses that there are, as yet, unresolved “issues” to be confronted regarding the poet’s relationships with her deceased parents. For example, we see in The Celery Forest fleeting mention of a distressingly uncommunicative mother, one who made her daughter “…ache for sound, for more / than air moving through the nostrils, mouth.” More frequently, Graham invokes the shade of her father who, apparently, lost his life in a driving accident when, perhaps under the influence of alcohol, he swerved to avoid a deer and crashed. He, too, was thereby quieted by fate (in his case, forever), leaving his daughter to mourn, grievously, in an expanding sea of silence. The poem, “Sunrise with the Sea Monsters,” presents an eerie dream sequence in which the poet re-lives her father’s life-ending calamity, but with a different culmination. She thus shuts her eyes “to keep from waking up” from her dream where:

Wide awake like a parent or spouse,
the worry, having inched

down my spine, crawls
into my mouth: where are you?

The sun rallies against this.
Monsters make more from too many.

He stands at the front door,
a Breathalyzer sticker on his chest.

Floating letters gleam
He did not pass.

There is only so much light to make sea.
To keep crew tasked to unfinished business.

Downcast, he stares at my fingers,
waiting for the wag and point…

Have these early challenges, and their attendant claims upon the poet’s ability to face and endure adversity, exerted an annealing influence upon her character? Did they help prepare her for the almost inconceivably horrific calamity of a breast cancer diagnosis at a relatively young age? One hazards a guess that, yes, indeed they have and they did. Recall that the poems in The Celery Forest constitute not only an artful but a fierce response to Graham’s encounter with the disease. It is her strength that resonates most palpably through these wonderfully articulate poems. That is not to say that she does not show vulnerability here and there; of course, she does.  But Graham plainly brought oceanic quantities of strength and determination to the prospect of facing down her malign challenger. The Celery Forest is, in a sense, her manifesto.

Beyond all of that, there is also tentative reconciliation with the dead to be found in these poems, at least with the poet’s father. In “The Hard Sweep,” Graham refers to his habit of sweeping cottonwood fluff “sticky as adhesives” off window screens in her family home. She goes on, then, to write:

…Attached to his broom,

his long arm of determination, reach—
I hear his mourning scrapes inside the left

side of my chest, the hard sweep to remove cells
survivors fear most. The unstoppable chore has come.

There is so much more that could be said about what is found in this remarkable selection. With additional space I might have commented at length upon Graham’s clever flirtation with the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, and her references to the trace amounts of cyanide that lurk in apple seeds (seeds being a recurring image in these poems for malignant, self-propagating cancer cells). Or I might have dwelt for a time upon the poet’s invocation of the “Princess and the Pea” fairy tale as a means of conveying the way that a cancer diagnosis is ever-present in the mind, discernable through all the fluffy layers of well-intentioned encouragement and positive self-dialogue that are meant to stifle its power to unsettle and alarm. I would have loved to go on about these and other things, but a review must end somewhere.

Readers will see that I began with a title set in quotation marks.  The line, “I am made more uneven above the heart,” is taken from Graham’s poem, “Masks.” It, clearly, makes reference to the mastectomy that the poet underwent while traveling her zig-zag pathway to remission. (Partway through the poems she begins to refer to herself, bravely and unapologetically, as having a “chest”.) Graham now finds herself “[m]ore uneven above the heart,” without doubt. She has not been left untouched by the pernicious disease. But importantly, she is undaunted by it.

The Celery Forest is a testament to many things. Graham’s determination to wrestle her illness into submission on the pages of her brilliant book is one of them. Undoubtedly that determination figured in her remission. For that, we must all be grateful. Now, we await—as patiently as we can—her next selection of poems. We do so with great anticipation. Graham’s work is far from complete; indeed, with six books of poetry and a novel already to her credit, she has only just begun.


Click here to read some poems from The Celery Forest