The Light Isn’t Coming Back: A Review of At Night by Lisa Ciccarello

Recently I learned about a new shade of lab-created black— “Vantablack.” Its superpower is that it reflects the least amount of light of any material ever tested—less than 0.04 percent, to be exact. It’s about the closest thing we have to replicating a black hole’s appearance. To make that color, scientists had to grow millions of carbon nanotubes—each 10,000 times thinner than a strand of hair—on aluminum sheets and pack the nanotubes tight enough that light gets lost.

I couldn’t help but think of this new hue when reading Lisa Ciccarello’s At Night (Black Ocean, 2015). Ciccarello’s words are like those strands. They are carefully chosen and stacked to slowly absorb the light. And what she created—this complete, encompassing darkness—is an experience that shakes you. It will unmoor you and keep you up at night.

Night means a lot of things in this collection—it is a grief so unfettered it haunts every minute and inverts the world, it is mortality, it is the oppressive hand of a lover, it is the desire to be understood and seen. It is the violence documented in The Newgate Calendar, 18th century stories about criminals, their crimes, and their executions. It is the hyper quiet where you can hear a key turn and a ribbon lift (53).

Take, for example, the second poem in the collection:

The dark is a sun. It is a blinding light. It is a fire that razes the roof to the ground & the tree to the ground & the animals to the ground & the ground to the dirt that holds the ground up.

Go now, while there is still something to go to (4).

In this world, binaries blur. The dark dismantles our small universal truths (for example, that light and dark are mutually exclusive), and only emotional logic prevails. Not even the individual poems will offer much guidance—there’s no title to ground you. Your only recourse is to question what you thought you knew and move forward with your arms outstretched.

It’s little surprise that the speaker of most of these poems tries to exert control in this chaotic, unknowable landscape through spells or intimacy. Here, the dead wander freely. At night, the dead aren’t really dead:

The dead are sitting up in their little huts. They are stuck that way. All night long they moan & try to cross their legs. In the day they pretend this is how they want it to be (9).

And:

You are asleep & inside the dream the dead rise up & their bodies are gone but their love has a form & they come to love you but it isn’t a dream & in the dream you can not speak. It is easy to tire of this love because it is endless (26).

It takes a certain kind of courage to exist in this night, and Ciccarello’s words may not offer comfort, but they do suggest survival is made of incremental, minute-by-minute moments of solace:

At night you dig up a boat, a paper boat & float to where you can dig up an alligator, an alligator with your baby in his stomach, a paper baby in a paper alligator & you lay down on both of them & call this sleep (49).

Cheryl Strayed once wrote to a grieving mother who lost her daughter, “Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death. They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died.”

Ciccarello’s collection seems to make a similar argument: grief is terrain only the grieving can navigate. At Night isn’t concerned with how you came to know this solitary path. But it does carve out a place for readers who understand what it means to lose and lose a lot. It gives them a whole dark planet to meditate on.


Ruth Awad is the author of Set to Music a Wildfire, her forthcoming debut poetry collection that won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize from Southern Indiana Review Press. She is the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Missouri Review, Sixth Finch, CALYX, Diode, Rattle, Vinyl Poetry, Drunken Boat, and in the anthologies The Hundred Years’ War: Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), New Poetry from the Midwest 2014 (New American Press, 2015), and Poets on Growth (Math Paper Press, 2015). She won the 2012 and 2013 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and she was a finalist for the 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. She’s also the resident blog editor at Agape Editions.

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