A Review of Cynthia Cruz’s How the End Begins

This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore

History wants to hurt you.

how the end beginsCynthia Cruz asserts this in the opening poem of How the End Begins, her new poetry collection from Four Way Books. She speaks with the insulated prescriptive tone of one still lost in their own depths, still drowsy on the long-furred pillow of the wild animal that has caged and comforted them, still wandering, dream-like, “Inside the warm, white hive of your childhood.”

“you drag
Your holy dream and damage
Into everything.”

How the End Begins maintains this tone throughout, redeeming the teenage-tragic tenor of its themes with the sincerity of its voice and the totality of its absorbed internalism. Cruz is a poet here obsessed with the wounds and wonders of childhood, and she nests both within a floating snowglobe of synth music and feathered morbidity. The collection co-opts the imagery of fairy tales and dreams to lull the reader into its world of tortured, titillated reverie. Along the way it teases God, tugs him out and tucks him away, and invokes a few of the poet’s personal gods–Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, Emily Dickinson. Bachmann’s play with ideas of boundaries and truth-finding finds echos throughout this collection.

Many of these poems are encased in winter imagery–snow, ice, cold, dormancy. These reflect off their sister metaphors of muffled silence, shattered glass, frozen hearts, a past locked in a transparent prison. This gorgeous wasteland of crystal and cold heightens the ethereal tone of the book; one easily pictures a white witch ruling over the kingdom of Cruz’s childhood, or the childhood she imagines, a childhood referenced more than once as lurking behind a “red door.” This door could be a simple visual device, a stark gateway demarcating an adult darkness from the quiet blizzard of childhood, or the red could hold more specific connotations, foreshadowing “The blood of childhood / All over my hands.”

The twitching crystal clockwork of her childhood fairy tale is doomed, and its imagery is inseparable from its own doom. Glass may outlast the human species in the geological record, but most of it will be shattered and unrecognizable. In “Prayer,” Cruz pleads to an unnamed deity, “Please protect me / From my thinking.” A few lines later, she sees the wages of her mind’s gnawing labor:

“The gleaming palace of my childhood,
Smashed. Once ferocious, now

Just a box.
Of broken glass.”

In “Driven,” she foresees death as both destruction and redemption: “The glittering / Hive of my mind, finally quiet.”

Cruz’s interactions with God are secondary but insistent. She cannot shake him, though his domain in her mind is limited. It is most often his shadow we see, his consequence, his allegories. In “Setting for a Fairy Tale,” she looks at her life as under a microscope and declares it,

“Small and empty
As everything

Left here

In this sad
Dead world.”

In “The Boatman,” she makes a lunging grab at him, but her hands come back empty:

“I cannot get to him.
On my knees

In the immaculate hotel room
I try.”

She is not free of him, though, and even his absence has a shape, and a malice. “In the Winter Alysum” has her uttering, “With you missing, / All the pretty animals are game for the killing.” In “Coco,” there is both rancor and relief in her dismal of the overseer of her grim present:

“I pulled God’s roots out

And now the stars

Are finally
Just dead planets

The personal mythology Cruz constructs in How the End Begins juxtaposes the sparkling white of her frozen childhood diorama with the dark abyss of an adult mind left trying to cope with the persisting cold of that static ice age. Still, as many a poet and artist who would not trade their pain if it meant surrendering their craft, she whispers, “But I need the darkness / To work with.”

The beautiful imagery and soft accoutrements of these poems are a decaying lie on the pain they hide, roses in a funeral parlor. Cruz writes here with the tormented, urgent wasting of a pining teenager, but the affectation if a chosen one, and it works as a device for the way we coddle all our most tender and prized wounds. When she speaks of “The ghost of what I was // Flickering fast / Out of me.” we know the ghost remains, but the fear is real. The collection concludes with a title poem (one of three in the book) that speaks of a thaw in the heart, a possible reawakening. It begins with surrender and an ending:

“My tenure as Queen
Of an excruciatingly brutal

Has come now
To its end.”

It concludes with ascension and a beginning:

“And now I see

The damaged animal
As it begins

To stir
From beneath

Its chrysalis
Of freezing ice.”

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