Reviewed By Rachel Hanby
The poetry within Gillian Cummings’s The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter will leave readers breathless, slowly sinking into a world of lyrical whimsy. This collection of poems draws readers in, as each lyrical passage, like a siren, beckons us closer to the ocean’s thrashing waves. Inspired heavily by Hamlet’s Ophelia, Cummings unifies these unique poems through distinctly female experiences. The lyrical poetry of The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter constructs a vast expanse of characters and moments within a compact space. Yet, the world Cummings carefully crafts never feels small. That is part of magic bound within The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter. In a few musical lines, you are able to understand a variety of female speakers. The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter weaves through the minds of women on the brink, exploring all the in-between spaces of a withdrawn psyche. Though you never truly know them, you somehow find yourself bound to their haunting voices, pulling you into their frame of mind. These voices call out to their own:
“echo, asking, asking,
Are they the same? The desire to end a life
and the need to know how: a flower’s simple bliss?”
Divided into four parts, The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter navigates through the mental framework of many female narrators. Although based off of the character Ophelia, I feel that this poetry collection’s audience is accessible to individuals that have not read Hamlet. The poetic form alternates at times, yet the collection feels cohesive. The lyrical nature of Cummings’s poems are like a system of rivers, beginning in different spaces full of many bends and curves, yet, somehow, flowing to the same destination. When you begin The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, be prepared to read it to its’ entirety during a single sitting. Cummings’s poetic flow coaxes the reader into a steady pace, reaching deeper and deeper into each musical line.
The beauty of The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter is largely accomplished by Cummings’s inclusion of nature-based imagery. Although every poem is unique, each woman feels connected by a luminous string. Every poem exists in a natural space that appears to transcend time. It is as if each speaker is consumed into the natural world as if they are Ophelia, slowly sinking into the river. In her poem, “A Matryoshka Doll Is a Nest Made of Eggs” Cummings embodies this unconventional return to nature in a beautiful way. In this poem, the speaker thinks of her body slowly breaking apart as a way to keep her safe, like a sparrow using its small frame to burrow in holes. Cummings goes on to write:
“…And if she is
all hole, opening always as sky
opens to take in the wound of snow,
at least she holds, at core, a kernel of girl.”
Moments like this exist throughout The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, leaving readers both breathless and concerned.
Like the parable of this collection’s namesake, Cummings’s poems explore the mind of women in turmoil, on the verge of forsaking the one gift everyone –whether they like it or not—is given: a life. “Vows of heaven” prominently explores this topic through the speaker’s musings. Aloud, she wonders:
“I begin in happenstance. From whence come here and why, into arms that do not hold me, as sky in an egg births a bird and flees—…—yet heaven itself half-hatching here. I’d not be caught by desire’s wound wire, were it not my soul seeking its own death.”
Like many of Cummings’s poems, “Vows of heaven” catches an individual on the edge, a frame of mind pulled by both turmoil and hope, tethered by an invisible string left undefined.
While exploring these minds in duress, Cummings’s poems also speak for an individual’s inner strength. Although the speakers find themselves wishing for death, they are still here. Each woman is alive to let her mind wander, regardless of the circumstances they exist under. Within this perspective, a reader is able to see a sliver of hope within the hopeless, a possibility for something new. Reading the poems this way caused me to wonder what was better: to persist and be a baker’s daughter, or reject that state and become something else entirely? After reading each poem, I am still unsure of the answer, and I feel that is one of the best aspects of The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter. These poems are about capturing a moment holistically. It does not concern itself with pointing out what path is necessarily right or wrong. Gillian Cummings’s writing is an undertow, pulling you into an imaginative space that is both evocative and whimsical.