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Cheryl and Janet Snell’s Prisoner’s Dilemma (Book Review)

Despite the chattering masses insistence that we have left behind the shackles of monochromatic forms, most lovers of literature remain lodged within the confines of the printed word.  No pictures, no mixed media, no audio, no textile experiences invade the high and lonely silence of the mind’s contemplation of the slashes and curves that from a certain distance resolve into letters, and then lines of words, marching across pages bound for they know not where: oblivion certainly, sooner or later.

How strange then that this absurd comedy continues when it is so easy for the imprisoned to step outside of these confines.  No jailor prevents it, except, of course, for the jailor we call the mind.  The doors are all open to the foreign world that lies beyond but inside we stay as if cowed by possibility itself.

It is against this backdrop that Janet and Cheryl Snell’s Prisoner’s Dilemma is best read.


“Beauty is as Beauty does, I suppose, and of course

all rivers are beautiful, not necessarily

with the untouched beauty

of a head cheerleader at her beginning of things” 

                                                (from “Fire of the Cuyahoga”)


The diction here, precise and yet off-hand, coupled with the unexpected coupling of ideas (beauty – rivers – the girl who knows all the boys desire her) places Snell on intimate relations with the main currents of twentieth century American poetry, a landscape marked by masters such as John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Louise Bogan and Louise Gluck, to name but a few poets associated with the style Alan Williamson (himself a fine poet) dubbed the new American surrealism.  And yet Snell—or rather the Snells—for the ebook I am reviewing, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, is a collection that alternates between Cheryl’s short lyric poems and Janet’s pencil drawings -- stands apart.

 The difference is hard to explain, so lets be blunt: in the best of Cheryl’s work, the style regains its vigor, enlivened by the poet’s deep sense of what it means to be caught up in life.  A digression on Freud may help here because we are on the subject of digressions.  Freud could never stop being fascinated by the notion that it is life that is the interruption.  Not death.  The immortal is the natural state.  But somehow we find ourselves shunted and routed out of the immortal and into the detour of the mortal for a brief go-round before flowing back into the immortal, back into death, and the beyond of death.  Cheryl Snell’s poetry, and Janet’s art, together illuminate this insight: that the detour into life is a circular whirlpool.  It has limitations that each experiences, and there is no fairness to those limitations, they just are, but every life will be lived within its formal constrictions.  And then those constrictions end.  But in between, how many of us take the time to convey a deep sense of the go-round?  Not many, and certainly not with the depth and richness that you encounter when reading Cheryl Snell’s poetry and looking at Janet’s art.


"There is nothing

To be learned from this, no lesson,

Just as there is no reason

Why you should turn inside out

Over a pair of gloves at the bottom

Of a box earmarked for the trash."

                                     (from “Lost”)


Lots of MFA trained poets can crank out lines sort of like this stretch.  The diction is precise and bracing, like cold ocean water.  The repetition, first at the level of idea (no learning, no lesson) and then at the level of refrain (there is no, there is no . . . ) reflects exposure to the severe music of Wallace Stevens (even if the exposure is second hand, that is no matter).  My mentor, the wonderful poet Tom Sleigh called these devices symbol clashes because those gloves explode in the attentive reader’s mind.  Most of the time, in most poetry, the effect is cheap: it hasn’t been earned.  The poet doesn’t know why reality should suddenly come undone there, in those lines.  They just bang symbols together because that is what they have been taught good poetry does.  But Cheryl, on the other hand, knows.  Her insight is hard won; the conveyance of knowledge as I read (and view) fills me with both respect for and gratitude to this team of artists.


In “Indigo Hour” Cheryl writes,


                                    "I run my palms

Along the edges of the headboard

As if a boundary can prove

That the past is not present here."


The metaphysical complexity of this image is to be taken seriously.  The past is present—more than that, the future is present here too.  Outside or within the eddy that is the mortal there is always the immortal.  That conflation is Cheryl’s true subject.  Her lyrics capture various aspects of it, of the real as “a zipper tired of meshing” (from “Tear”).  The tonalities of her poems go far beyond the little snippets I have typed here. The reader will find laughter and love and everything else.  Prisoner’s Dilemma is a book that repays repeated readings.  Art is not a contest.  But if asked to name my favorite poets working today, I would place Cheryl Snell very high up on my list.

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What a generous, layered review! Your image of the immortal interrupted by (repeated) mortal existence resonates especially well in this household steeped in Hindu philosophy of the endless cycle of birth and rebirth (and Eliot).

Thank you so much for doing this, Matthew.


Cheryl Snell

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Nice 'take' on this collection, Matthew

That 'conflation' you put a name to is very telling and I shall re-read the poems through another lens.

But Cheryl's poetry, enlarged by Janet's mood illustrations, is fertile ground for new discovery and, as you say, repays revisiting. It's the sign of an accomplished poet!

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I should have said that this point Matthew makes about Freud and the overview of Reality, dipping in and out of mortal life and the ongoing cycle of things, tallies closely with what I've come to realise. (Though this would horrify some Christians, I can find nothing biblical to contradict it and believe it is implicit in the big picture of God's overriding mercy: it just isn't a necessary tenet of Christian discipleship and has to be discovered, perhaps, in a personal way. When we come to rely completely on God's love and not on our own efforts, we don't need to keep revisiting the mortal world.) So Hindu philosophy has some interesting insights here which we might miss.

I'm also inclined to the view that we live in parallel realities NOW and dip in and out of them, too, while, as individuals, following an uninterrupted linear path.

N.B. Having said all that, I generally take Freud with a huge pinch of salt!

Okay, I'm going to bed shortly:) It will soon be midnight here and I need an early night!

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I agree with the lovely review. Your poetry is magnificent always..