The Book of Arabella by Timothy Walsh. Parallel Press, 2014.
Review by Mary Riley
Think that fairy tales are only for children? Think again. In Timothy Walsh’s latest chapbook, The Book of Arabella, Walsh weaves a tale of one woman’s desperate wish to be transformed back into what she truly is: a blue heron. Walsh’s carefully constructed poems create Arabella’s interior world with a bright lyricism and palpable longing.
In the first poem, “Arabella’s Arsenal”, we are introduced to her domestic world: “Trivet, spatula, and wire whisk. / A wife is what they called her, / but a heron is what she was.” (p. 12). As an aside, to describe a woman solely as a wife is to invite ambiguity, mystery, and intrigue: Who exactly is this woman, and what are her secrets? (Recent trends in best-selling fiction titles, the plethora of novels titled The [Fill in the Blank]’s Wife, attest to this sentiment). As the story unfolds, everything in Arabella’s life appears to be normal and satisfactory on the surface. However, her discontent manifests itself early. In the poem “Webs and Nests”, we read that “She has nearly forgotten the feel of wing feathers / quivering in the air, / the lift of an updraft, a northern gale … // she holds her arms spread wide to the moon, beseeches the stars to restore her to what she was.” (p. 13).
In his poems, Walsh uses meter, cadence, sound, and diction to create musicality, tension, and the mythic plot. Walsh’s frequent word-play made me laugh out loud, as in “Arabella’s Birthday”, where Arabella is presented with a birthday cake: “For her birthday, there was a frosted, candled cake … / her name in florid, sugar-ice script, / frosting flowers forever frozen on the verge.” (p. 18). Clearly, Walsh enjoyed the process of composing these poems! As the story progresses, Arabella feels increasingly trapped in her human body and domesticated life, especially as she compares it to her memories of flying in open skies and stepping into the shallows of lakes. As she becomes more preoccupied with her desire to become a heron once again, her behavior becomes odd and unpredictable.
Given this change, Arabella’s concerned husband arranges for her to see a psychiatrist. Things go well for a time, but as foreshadowed from the beginning, Arabella’s marriage is doomed. Walsh incorporates additional mythic and fairy tale motifs into the tale to illustrate her final leave-taking of human form and marital life and subsequent transformation into a heron. The narrative arc continues through the last poem in the chapbook (which structurally mirrors the first poem), except now it is the husband who is alone, pacing the silent house, trapped in his thoughts: “He feels his humanity hanging heavily on his bones, / this ballast of flesh, this weight of clothes.” (“Loss and Evergreens”, p. 35). Thus, the story ends as it begins.
Poetry-lovers are a diverse lot: some love images, some love stories, others love sound and language, and still others love intricate literary shapes and structures. In The Book of Arabella, Walsh offers the reader all of these things. At heart, his chapbook is a sustained meditation upon the human condition – the weight and shape of confinement, and at what price one becomes free.