Nov 7 2022
Poetry review – TODAY IN THE FOREST: Michael Paul Hogan is fascinated by a fragmentary myth created by Cindy Rinne
Today In The Forest Poetry by Cindy Rinne with Images by Toti O’Brien Moonrise Press, Los Angeles, CA ISBN: 9781945938436) 40pp $20.00 . .
She finds herself in an aspen forest. Blue rain begins to fall as Anahita floats to meet her. Welcome. I am Anahita. You have arrived into the Map of the Ancestors where bloodlines are drawn as interlaced branches. The goddess explains, The map was carved by a wolf-person. You can follow the curves to forecast your life like lines on your palms.
Is it possible to create a myth? Or should they evolve out of some remote and unrecorded past, only gaining the concrete legitimacy of words when they have been refined and expanded over centuries of oral transmutation? Does poetry represent a myth’s end in the sense that the myth is now completed? That it can no longer be told in many versions, but now must be read as a single unified work?
The genius of Cindy Rinne (greatly aided by the genius of her illustrator, Toti O’Brien) is that she has managed to sidestep these questions by not exactly creating a myth, but presenting us with the fragments of a myth, one that might have been developed orally then been crystallised by poets, but now resembles the shards of pottery and pieces of fresco from which an archaeologist might recreate the kingdom of Sparta or the city of Troy. The myth, she seems to say, has been forgotten, buried under a heap of modern imagery; from these fragments I now present to you, you must recreate the myth for yourself.
Today in the Forest begins with the introduction of Anahita, a borrowing from a previous myth, the ancient Persian goddess of the waters, associated with healing, wisdom and fertility: I wear a golden crown and adore rushing streams… one aspen leaf speaks kind words to my horses… and later: My trees are dying. The Candlepeople will be next…
How can we help? The wolf-people asked. Select one Candleman to survive. I will instill a lightning bolt within black bear to generate a Candlewoman in the future.
and ends with Crystalwind (one of the major, author-invented characters) imagining Anahita:
The goddess rises into the atmosphere. Moves the damp clouds with a swoosh of her left hand.
In other words, the myth, or what fragments of it remain, has come full circle. But that still begs the question of how me might interpret what lies in-between.
If we begin with Anahita, we soon progress to the other characters, all the creations of Cindy Rinne herself. There is the aforementioned Crystalwind, whom the author equates with fire, her brother Moonfox, anchored to the earth, and then their sister Dreamstar, who represents, perhaps too obviously, the sky. But then we have a third sister, Azurite, who in the text is explicitly equated with water while at the same time possessing some of the attributes of wolf or bear, linking this extraordinary family with the forest of the book’s title – and that forest is very much a character in itself, a living breathing entity that is somehow independent of the leaves and bark and branches that form it; not just a habitat but a companion for the owl, the deer, the elk and the wolf-people who play out their parts in the story among its shadowy trees.
But the story, as I have said, has long been forgotten; what we have now are scenes and images from which we must garner clues as to what the original narrative might have been. Anahita, I believe, comes down from Venus (or perhaps the moon) because the forest (a microcosm of our world) is under threat and she has been invoked as a saviour by Crystalwind. The peaceful inhabitants, the Candlepeople, have all but died out, leaving just one Candleman to bear the weight of responsibility for the history of his kind:
Anahita, protect these flames at all cost, Candleman cries. I am the last of my kind, rejected outsider in these woods lost. Hidden in the frost of decayed logs, I stoop to protect these flames at all cost. Generations pass, I am like a ghost, an outsider in a cave of sticks, rejected in these woods, lost.
A world that has lost its balance; an environment under some kind of looming threat; a landscape simultaneously mysterious, even frightening, and yet home; the last survivor of an apocalypse (I interpret the previously quoted flame as a people’s accumulated knowledge; a library, perhaps); a young girl looking skyward for divine assistance… The metaphors can be easily, even usefully applied. But what counts for me is that we put our trust in the writing itself; that we remember that this is a work of literature, and that by creating cohesion where perhaps none is intended we risk overlooking the poetry that should be our main focus.
The beauty of Cindy Rinne’s style lies in the fact that although her meanings might be obscure (or at the very least, open to multiple interpretations) her diction is wonderfully clear. Each word is exactly the right word, whether writing as an imagist:
after the leaves fell skeletons strung seed necklaces for newborns
or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a prose poet:
Moonfox fears owl and feels less afraid with deer. Ready to climb, his pudgy foot slips a couple times on smooth, granite boulders. The wind threatens to take his hat. Be careful, says Dreamstar from below. Brother pictures the grace of deer as he scrapes his short fingers. The air is thin, but easy for him to breathe. The incense cedars and white pines arch in biting winds. Brother inhales their spicy smell and takes another step.
There is a wonderfully tactile sense about the above passage; I can feel the texture of that rock beneath my own foot; feel the whiplash of the wind on my face. Cindy Rinne must be commended for remembering that easily forgotten truth: all myths, even fragmentary ones, lose their power very quickly if they do not have a grounding in everyday detail – and in this the author is not just aided by the clarity of her own voice, but by the inclusion of thirteen extraordinary illustrations by the Los Angeles-based Italian artist Toti O’Brien.
Each, she has told me (for I broke the fourth wall of reviewing by e-mailing her to clarify her technique), began as a small clay sculpture; this was then photographed to allow digital enhancement in respect of background and lighting. If this were all, it would be quite enough, because these sculptures themselves, primitive in style but wonderfully sophisticated in execution, are completely consistent with the mythology of Cindy Rinne’s vision. However, there is much more to them than that. It is customary, of course, for an illustration to be matched with a specific piece of text; the adventure tales of my boyhood would always have an appropriate line from the story printed under the adjacent black and white line drawing. But here we move well beyond that, for each of Toti O’Brien’s artworks incorporates passages from the book, using a variety of fonts and font-sizes, and often allowing the words themselves to swoop and swirl across the illustration as though they have a life of their own. It is a quite brilliant conceit that exactly matches the magical quality of the text.
Ultimately, Today in the Forest defies any kind of conventional revue. The text is like trying to negotiate an entirely blacked-out village by the occasional flash of lightning; the illustrations need to be seen to be appreciated; the effect of the combination of the two must, therefore, be taken on trust. I can only conclude by saying that Cindy Rinne and Toti O’Brien have between them created a small masterpiece. It deserves all the success I hope it achieves.