Local Forecast: Whirlwind @ Lesbos by Risa Denenberg


Whirlwind @ Lesbos by Risa Denenberg (Headmistress Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Rebecca Valley

After a long hiatus, I’ve returned to our Local Forecast series on writers of the Pacific Northwest with a book that, while written by a local, is remarkably worldly. Whirlwind @ Lesbos, the latest collection by Seattlite Risa Denenberg, is aptly named – the poems in this collection pull from the deepest corners of the poet’s memory and are juxtaposed together to create a sensual, painful epic where a lover is lost at the same moment, or perhaps even before, she is found, and ghosts churn, only occasionally showing their faces.

The strongest, and my favorite of Denenberg’s pieces, is the title poem, which appears at the beginning of the collection. The origin of the word stanza is in the Italian word for room, and that has never been more clear for me than in this poem – the narrator appears in a series of rooms that span continents, centuries, where two lovers are entwined and departing:

“In winter, we rented a small cottage

in Copenhagen where winds blew

snow over our bed…


We undressed each other

maidens in the fifth century…


… I missed the cab to the airport

slept right through the alarm

one morning in Cairo…


The baggage was clearly marked

but reached Paris by error.


I’m in New York

awaiting your email.” (2)

I was drawn to the eternal nature of this poem, and its comfort with dozens of real and imagined locations, which finally comes to a close in the contemporary world, with an email in New York that may never arrive. There’s a vulnerability in Denenberg’s poems that I admire, which appears here as a plea that builds in each stanza. This book, in fact, is full of pleas – for lovers to return, for friends to rise from the dead, for youth and for death and for comfort. These pleas are tempered, though, by an independence that wavers between satisfaction and loneliness; in “About the body and what it needs” Denenberg writes:

“I am no more alone than Emily Dickinson.

There is no idiom for the seasonal way I sail

into myself. The clouds are blue today.” (24)

Though a number of pieces in this collection read as standard love-and-love-lost poems, there are strong lines which carry the book more toward the realm of memory and loss and the heaviness that can come with aging. The moments I loved most in Whirlwind @ Lesbos were the ones which in which Denenberg gathered disjointed memories into a bouquet and presented them without pomp or explanation. There is a beauty to this, to the picking and presenting of a life as a series of moments that are connected only by the one remembering. The narrative that is crafted by this kind of presentation is as messy and as beautifully complicated as the life itself.

This is a wild collection, which is both vulnerable and duplicitous, sharp-edged and soft. It is a contemporary book that stretches back into the memory of love when it was more dangerous and tinged with loss. It feels often like the speaker of these poems has herself by the throat – for this reason, among others, it is satisfying to read.

Buy this book: Headmistress Press // Indiebound

One thought on “Local Forecast: Whirlwind @ Lesbos by Risa Denenberg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s