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Alison Hicks on Mend & Hone

Mend & Hone by Elizabeth Howort, Dawn Gorman, Leslie LaChance and Janlori Goldman

Toadlily Press, 2013, 69 pp., $16.00

 

Some readers may remember Theodore Weiss’ Quarterly Review of Literature, which published 3-4 chapbook-length works an issue.  In addition to serving as a launching pad for poets, it offered the reader a chance to sample a substantial yet digestible portion of a poet’s work and to experience different poetic voices playing off each other. To its credit, Toadlily Press resurrected this practice in 2005 with its “Quartet Series,” which presents four poets in one perfect-bound volume, with the aim to “juxtapose multiple voices in dialogue with one another and the reader.”  

 

Toadlily’s Mend & Hone, which includes Elizabeth Howort’s “Turning the Forest Fertile,” Dawn Gorman’s “This Meeting of Tracks,” Leslie LaChance’s “How She Got That Way,” and Janlori Goldman’s “Akhmatova’s Egg,” is a first book publication for the authors.  The volume is attractively designed, the palette and textures in Liz Hawkes DeNiord’s cover art fitting and inviting. Though the collections present distinct voices and textures, generativity is a central concern: how to make a life, how to make life and nurture it, whether biologically or poetically. For these poets, the natural world provides a model, the exterior landscape informs the interior one—for LaChance, the landscapes often are interiors—and making life is connected to story, to the act (and art) of telling. The variation in arrangement on the page in the poems within each collection, including Howort’s use of short prose stanzas, seems organic rather than gimmicky.

 

The second person plural “we” of Elizabeth Howort’s “Turning the Forest Fertile” seek to bring silence and fertility to the city. The project of nesting is introduced in her untitled poems first with “The song” that “comes from us, but is not us,” that “comes from a curled up fern unfurling,” and second with story: “If we imagine ourselves in a house, in a nest … we are telling a story.  …//… A story about how to live lightly, how to create space in a place that lacks light.”  The subsequent poems usher us through the anxieties of cultivating the urban garden and the nest that challenges its builders to “hold silence like a book of matches.” In the final poems, a “bright bird” is hatched from an egg, its “wails” allowing the nesters to “enter the silence we sought” while offering the subsequent challenge: “beside a tiny breath/a song we must learn.”

 

Gorman’s This Meeting of Tracks opens with the arresting image of a stiletto in a hawthorn hedge. The poems that follow appear to trace the progress of an affair against the backdrop of touristy places in Britain.  In an early poem “Buried,” the couple makes uncomfortable love under beech trees and the lover buries the condom under “last year’s empty nut shells … where nothing would grow.” The speaker imagines it “re-routing nature/still.” In “Snatching the Story,” at the top of the Tor, the speaker declares, “I’d like to think the wind/stripped off the past,/snatched the story/from our backs/…We could be blameless.” 

 

But nature—like story, herstory, history—has a way of reasserting itself. The hedge returns in “Honeysuckle, Balladonna” when the speaker trims it: “your kisses and lies/winding through the privet.”  In “Apple Tree,” the tree is a gift from the lover: “new life/from past love … the perfect gift/spreading today/into the future.” Despite the speaker’s decision to maintain “distance,/because roots in the earth/are one thing,/but those that delve/in skin and flesh/… are quite another,”  it is perhaps not so surprising that images of new life persist at the end of “Rebirth” (“I want to screw up my face, yowl/like a newborn), and the final poem, “Stoney Littleton Barrow” (“When finally unwombed, I stood and blinked at the blue-apricot heaven,” “Lying up there together, like twins new and surprised/on their mother’s stomach”). The new life here may be the poet’s own, but as this collection asserts, it is life nonetheless.

 

Leslie LaChance offers a humorous twist on the affair played out against the backdrop of historic sites:  “Look, I found the souvenir picture of my hangover/made the day after we’d declared our love and drank to it—/one of everything Irish in the Irish bar. Remember? No?” (“Literary Landmark: A Valentine”). Declaration and command are typical of many poems here: “Don’t you love indefinite articles, so small, so full/of possibility and yet complete?” (“Strange Little Enthusiasms”); “Feed me tamales for breakfast/3 for $1 from out the back door/of Bill’s auntie’s sweaty kitchen” (“So, There It Is”); “get her some thistle/some raspberry jam//a shiny bumper/a black little thing” (“gifted”);”‘She kept her secret weapon on the kitchen table/in plain sight, a white bowl full of Surprise” (“How She Got That Way”). In this somewhat antic world, objects take on life. A leaflet is “a prayer tied to a flaccid balloon/spent and snagged high in the last of the dying pines./A red question” (“Flutter”). The “secret weapon” in “How She Got That Way” transforms itself mischievously into “a new, ungovernable limb.” In “Nocturne,” the speaker takes her glasses off and leaves them on an open book. When she comes back, “they looked so melancholy …/trying to read Tolstoy by themselves.” This vein culminates in the final poem, “So Much World,” which begins “So much world on this little desk—a dictionary!/A blue pen & a lime green notebook. Vodka & soda,” and concludes, “No one asked for any of this, but/here it is, and here we are, all at once.”

 

The wit in these poems does not feel slight. While LaChance is probably not the only poet who could claim that “The first poem/I had by heart/was Dorothy Parker’s/Resumé,” few would admit it in quite so delightful a way:

 

…Mother worried.

 

But I fell for rhymes

that clicked their way

 

to fatality and snagged

on that final shrug—

 

mad little might as well

one choice

 

almost as bad

as the others

 

(from “Nooses Give”)

 

Though the sky is a tease in “Everybody Talks About It,” “all pearled up like my pageant queen.//Each afternoon it’s a storm suggests itself, never shows,” the moon in “Moon, Man in the” is knocked up: “Had a man/in her. You can imagine it/what people thought!”

 

Janlori Goldman’s “Akhmatova’s Egg” announces its homing desires in “Winter Solstice.” The speaker first contemplates “a slow sheathing of the moon in shadow/as if the sky were a gill/through which all things/flow in    filter out,” then pleads, “bring me a home with no right angles/a space of curling in,” and finally imagines, “to my round house a friend will come/or maybe the friend’s mother.” The story behind the title, Anna Akhmatova’s giving the egg that Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam had brought for the three of them to share to Osip on the eve of his arrest, is told in “One Last Thing” by a dying man, possibly the speaker’s father:  “Here, she said, You’re going to prison. You eat it.” The egg that fails to hatch remains a vehicle of sustenance.

 

Disaster looms for the speaker in “Dr. Charlotte Silverman,” who remembers bathing her infant daughter: “Her slippery skin cringed in the air/as I bent over the kitchen sink,//sunk her downy shoulders in faux amnio—/wondered how many newborns/slip to linoleum, how many/mothers swab the floor of evidence.” It strikes and continues resonating for Donna Bianco, retired NYPD sergeant, as she relates to the speaker her experiences in the aftermath of  9/11 in the tour-de-force “At the Cubbyhole Bar.”  The speaker of “Magnolia,” the “next and last sweetheart/of the one who stayed,” attempts to nurse a tree traumatized by divorce back to health. The process of liberating the magnolia involves “crack[ing] the soil,” an action like that the speaker of “Yom Kippur” attempts to affect in her heart, “a door that forgot how to open,” thanks to “the cantor//whose polioed leg rubbed into me  …/…as if I were still his student//and he could still grip my waist—always his smell of yellow breath//and wear. That was when the old men said girls can never be/rabbis, girls can’t stand before the torah.”

 

The moon makes its appearance here, too, in a myth sketched in “condor.” One of the poems is titled “Les Menhirs,” which the author explains in her notes are “thousand year-old upright carvings, often set in fields, likely used for rituals related to fertility and death.” This collection, like Howort’s, ends with a poem of birth, “baking in the 8th month”:  “darker from the navel straight down, this rise/a sign of life inside, my acre swollen to the brim.//in a shallow pool I lay cooling, a slow fish/carrying a slower fish. she flips//like a caught trout, rolls a fin against her cell./In July my girl makes a fist, crowns in a streak/of rouge.” In her notes, Goldman comments that this poem is a response to Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” which makes the assertion, “You do not have to be good.” Goldman raises the bar higher: “we do//have to be good. Unclamp the breath./knot the cord.”

 

—o0o—

 

 

 

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