If life is a river, then Melissa Crowe’s Dear Terror, Dear Splendor (University of Wisconsin Press) is the boat crashing along through every torrent and floating atop the calm shallows. Crowe’s poetry collection, which starts with a splash of a poem titled “The River,” is truly a rumination on life itself and the terrifyingly splendid ways love ushers each of us along for the ride.
The collection of poems is revealed to the reader in five sections, each dissecting the way love morphs into its different forms over the course of a life well-lived and still becoming. These sections read almost like acts in a play—each tied together to the next with the tattered strings of a love that shape shifts, first filling the mold of kerosene-scented familial love held together by blood alone.
The first poems explore what it means to identify with where one comes from, not only geographically but hereditarily, beginning with the thought of what it’s like to be a child and not question anything, to know just where you are and who you are in “French Food.” Crowe examines how this acceptance of one’s family, and the love for that family, begins to shift into questions of life and love and the heartache that comes with realizing that “there are people who will suffocate / for love” (“Kissing Lessons”).
These familial ties are pulled taut when the speaker watches illness change her grandfather, and next her mother, and eventually muddles through the turns in the river that leave loved ones behind. These topics, though heavy, are explored by Crowe with such immense care that the beauty of each poem, both separate and as a part of a larger narrative, leave questions unanswered that are okay just as they are. Crowe finishes this section with musings on how one can wish to find happiness—to feel good—even if a loved one may never feel good again, a heart wrenchingly familiar question that she does not answer, but that feels answered all the same.
In section two, Crowe begins with a quote from Theodore Roethke that, with melancholy, states that “love is my wound,” and this statement seems to carry through not only the second section but throughout the rest of Dear Terror, Dear Splendor, as the bits and pieces of the familial love from section one are carried along the river of life with the reader. This section explores love of a romantic sense—a love displayed with drawn on clown mouths, “yes, but every frown and tear merely grease paint” (“Epithalamium with Acrobats”). This romantic love takes the speaker to new places, but she never leaves behind her roots, and eventually this love manifests itself in the birth of a child, beautifully compared to a firefly buzzing about in a jar in “Elegy for Fireflies.” The birth of Annabelle is the collection’s biggest turn, as jarring as a crashing waterfall, in the river of the speaker’s life.
Annabelle, and the speaker’s immense, suffering love for her, are one of the main focuses of the rest of Dear Terror, Dear Splendor. In part three, Annabelle is described as a jewel who eclipses the speakers every thought, but this immense love is described through a series of poems that explore the fear that comes with parenting. The poems in section three keep with this theme in title alone, with titles like a mournful “Labor Aubade,” “Bruise,” “Damage,” “Stabat Mater,” and “Vehophobia,” all exploring fear (sometimes quite literally) and the joyful mourning that comes with experiencing a child grow up.
Familial love takes center stage once more in part four as sibling relationships and the anxiety-inducing frailty that takes over these relationships as time goes on—the moments that cause one to say “I can’t look too long” (“Forgiftet Garden”). There is a sense of both admiration and anxiety that stems from this love for one’s siblings in this section, and a final meditation on what it means to finally love oneself in the last several poems that begin the collection’s conclusion. In “One Reason to Stay,” one of the simplest, yet most profound, poems in Dear Terror, Dear Splendor, the speaker so eloquently writes that the heartsores that never heal as a teenager do eventually mend, but it is hard to know that “because the language of forty / and sixteen have so few words / in common.”
At times Crowe’s poems can be clunky—the lyricism so breathtaking on one page can be dashed in favor of a more straightforward thoughtline on the next, but that is, in a way, what keeps things interesting. Throughout Dear Terror, Dear Splendor one never knows what is coming around the bend, and that unexpectancy is what makes for a luscious collection that handles remorseful topics with gratuitous lightheartedness.Although it doesn’t always hit the right notes, the song sounds familiar and relatable, and that is where Crowe’s mastery is able to play.
Crowe ends her collection questioning “what kind of wealth grows as you spend it?” (“Perpetual Beginner”) and admits in her own words, and those of Kerrin McCadden, that “I don’t understand it yet,” but that with time, things really do get better and better. The speaker can finally, after winding along on the river with the many heavy kinds of love, exhibit the most powerfully astonishing act of love one can offer, finally releasing a child into the world, saying “go ahead and fly —” (“Some Say the World”) but still ending the story with a dash because, after all, it’s not over yet.