Summary and book reviews of The Ada Poems by Cynthia Zarin

The Ada Poems

By Cynthia Zarin

The Ada Poems
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2010,
    80 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Marnie Colton

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Book Summary

A dazzling story of obsessive love emerges in Cynthia Zarin's luminous new book inspired and inhabited by the title character of Nabokov’s novel Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, who was the lifelong love of her half brother, Van.

These electric poems are set in a Nabokovian landscape of memory in which real places, people, and things—the exploration of the Hudson River, Edwardian London, sunflowers, Chekhov, Harlem, decks of cards, the death of Solzhenitsyn, morpho butterflies—collide with the speaker's own protean tale of desire and loss.

With a string of brilliant contemporary sonnets as its spine, the book is a headlong display of mastery and sorrow: in the opening poem, "Birch," the poet writes "Abide with me, arrive / at its skinned branches, its arms pulled / from the sapling . . . the birch all elbows, taking us in." But Zarin does not "Destroy and forget" as Nabokov's witty, tender Ada would have her do; rather, as she writes in "Fugue: Pilgrim Valley," "The past's / clear colors make the future dim, Lethe's / swale lined with willow twigs."

Like all enduring love poetry, these poems are a gorgeous refusal to forget.

BIRCH

Bone- spur, stirrup of veins—white colt
a tree, sapling bone again, worn to a splinter,
a steeple, the birch aground

in its ravine of leaves. Abide with me, arrive
at its skinned branches, its arms pulled
from the sapling, your wrist taut,

each ganglion a gash in the tree’s rent
trunk, a child’s hackwork, love plus love,
my palms in your fist, that

trio a trident splitting the birch, its bark
papyrus, its scars calligraphy,
a ghost story written on

winding sheets, the trunk bowing, dead is
my father
, the birch reading the news
of the day aloud as if we hadn’t

heard it, the root moss lit gas,
like the veins on your ink-stained hand —
the birch all elbows, taking us in.

AUBADE AGAINST GRIEF

Chaste sun who would not light your face
pale as the fates
who vanished

when we turned aside; recluse
whom grace
returned and by returning banished

all thought but: Love, late
sleeper in the early hours, flesh of my bone,
...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Reading Vladimir Nabokov's six-hundred page magnum opus, Ada, is much like climbing to the top of a monument, say, Washington, D.C.'s famous obelisk, or Prague's Astronomical Clock Tower: the steep, vertiginous ascent ultimately pays off in a breathtaking view of the landscape below, a landscape you have traversed within the twin cocoons of stairwell and elevator, or in this case, sentence and paragraph, to reach a glorious summit. In other words, it's not a beach read. Cynthia Zarin's bold collection inspired by this tome weighs in at a mere 55 pages of poems, but it stands as its own achievement in its lush distillation of Nabokov's pet themes: time, memory, passion, and the triumph of artifice over fact.   (Reviewed by Marnie Colton).

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Library Journal

Although somewhat distracting, Zarin's technique adds resonance, helping the poems to work on several levels and giving the book a frenetic Alice in Wonderland atmosphere. With its deft wordplay and polished style, Zarin's collection offers a chilling poetry of double meanings that will appeal to sophisticated readers.

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Beyond the Book

Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, by Vladimir Nabokov, was published in 1969. It tells the story of two lovers, Van and Ada Veen, who meet as teenagers, believing they are cousins; they later find out they share the same mother and father. It takes place in the late 19th century in the imaginary Antiterra - a kind of alternative Earth. Upon its publication, The New York Times called it "a love story, an erotic masterpiece, a philosophical investigation into the nature of time."

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