Ithaca: A Life in Four Fragments

BlazeVOX Books, 2012
​Travis Cebula’s Ithaca – A Life in Four Fragments is a book-length poem that distills the life of its titled heroine down to four sections: Consummation, Catechism, Courtship and Confinement. As somewhat unconventional headings for the periods of gestation, education, marriage and old age, they prepare the reader for the unconventional, lyrical poems that will tell the subject’s story.

The poems themselves are fragmented, written in an almost stream of consciousness style (though it’s never clear whose consciousness) that also manages to sound like mythology. They have a common and generational ambiance to them that makes one think of tribal or ceremonial songs:

hold gap-toothed Ithaca.
her four beautiful,
            the stranger in your shadow,
night by night.

we are means to small creatures
            and nature has other ends than we.

                                      the best was a woman,
                                                             or wife
                                      (if so fortune sang).

The beginning section is particularly strong with Ithaca in utero. The disjointed language and surprising connections capture an intelligence struggling to make distinctions:

Ithaca imagines snow,
            can feel the word of it.

tinking off the belly
            of her mother.

Ithaca thinks snow
           sounds like isolation,

like a morning before

Ithaca believes in her warmth
           snow is
an impossibility of reaching. 

Woven into these poems are brief interjections in italics. The speaker is not clear but it seems to be Ithaca’s own remembrances. They serve to bring an additional voice into the story and also a feeling of expectancy, as when she states before the courtship section:

I shall prove that last
injured modesty, a girl
wants a faraway
handsome thing

In Courtship we get pieces of a marriage that seemed difficult and ultimately unlucky. Perhaps why Ithaca seems alone at the end in her Confinement chapter. In this last section, we see an older Ithaca. The neighborhood has changed, yet it’s the first time we do get a sense that there is a neighborhood. Here we find more proper nouns, names, objects, more of a sense of place. It’s as if as one gets older, the memories start to dig in. Ithaca begins to remember and record more faithfully when she is recording loss: Ithaca remembers her kitchen/ how she glowed in the low winter sun. 

What is truly worth admiring about Cebula’s piece is the way he manages to build suspense through these glimpses of a life. One wants to know what happened to Ithaca, what did Ithaca learn, what went wrong in her marriage? The fact that the book doesn’t necessarily answer such questions in a complete fashion will be a challenge to some readers, perhaps unimportant to others. It seems entirely fitting that a life would be told in fragments, some pieces contributed by the one who lived, others by those who knew them. 

The language at the end begins to resemble the language at the beginning, a circularity that suggests form can be found even in fragments. These fragments I have shored against my ruins.  Like Eliot, Cebula is also pulling from larger collective memories and smaller ones, the shared memories of a family, until finally we are left with Ithaca alone and a paradoxical ending open to many meanings right down to the last word, rather. As in preference, or instead? A kind of measurement? The beauty and charm of the language, and of Ithaca’s story, make these mysteries worth pondering.  

ALLISON ELLIOTT lives and works in New York City.