Oyster River Reviews
Walking to Windward: A Review
by Jennifer MacPherson
What a pleasure it has been to read and review the four volume set that comprises the Walking to Windward series from Oyster River Press. Each of the handsome boxed volumes contains five, or in one case six, chapbooks by outstanding New England poets.
I Hear America Singing: Sometimes it troubles me begins this collection of chapbooks admirably. Robert Dunn, the poet Laureate of Portsmouth, NH, has a wonderful sense-of-humor, at times tongue in cheek and subtle, at other times wider and more in your face, but always there is gentleness and compassion underlying that humor. These are short poems, often no more than seven lines, sometimes two to a page. and they range from the bittersweet longing of the well-wrought sonnet, In Your Absence, to the hilarious nine word parody of Country & Western.
The lovely narrative poems in Patricia Fargnoli’s Lives of Others eschew any hint of the confessional. Although usually written in the first person, they describe other people’s worlds and their inhabitants, or, like the three-page long, powerful Vathana Tells of Her Hunger are dramatic monologues spoken in some other voice than the poet’s individual consciousness. As in all of Ms. Fargnoli’s poetry, wonder and energy shine through these poems’ precise language and haunting imagery.
Lucky to be Born in a House of Milk & Poems from The White Nightgown comes from the pen of Catherine O’Brian. The first half of the book consists of evocative narratives of her early life among servants in the Philippines. The Amah is particularly powerful with its repetitions and rhythms that establish and echo at the poem’s beginning and end. The second half of the book are poem fragments about the title garment, sensuous and delicate, often with a haiku feel to them.
The Great Apology, by Mark DeCarteret, brims with poems that pulse with quiet intensity, often with anguish, sometimes with irony. Nature imagery is plentiful and used well, Poems range from haiku, through the formal lines of Bernadette the Saint, to longer, personal narrative, such as the outstanding My Aunt the Magnificent and Wish You Were where we find such images as cramming/ chaos down the moon’s woeful throat and Somewhere, a dog howls/ at the spot the moon occupied,/ its muzzle a black crust,/ its coat a net of locust.
The fifth chapbook that completes Volume l, I Hear America Singing, in the Walking to Windward series, and the first chapbook that begins Volume ll, A Book of Hours, are both by Julia Older. Completing the first volume, City in the Sky is a collection of a dozen poems inspired by the Indians of Mexico and the Southwest. The poet takes on a native-American persona in some while others are written from the observer’s view. The Blue Appaloosa was my personal favorite here. Then, in the second chapbook, The Ossabaw Book of Hours, Ms. Older’s sixteen poems suggest the primitive richness of Ossibaw Island, a former plantation, later an artistic/scientific colony, now a state preserve, which lies off the Georgia coast. These haunting poems arise from the island’s almost overwhelming fecundity. Beginning with the stunning Midnight, each poem, through its nature-based imagery, creates an inner world which the poet gives to us in now delicate, now fierce poems. Cabalistic Metaphor shouldn’t be missed.
Elizabeth Knies’ White Peonies is a chapbook of heartfelt poetry centered on nature for its images and content. In these quiet poems, she ranges from country to city, and around the world from Kyoto to Cambridge to St. Petersburg. She recounts dreams and memories, and shines in her ekphrastic verse based on such luminaries as Monet, Borges, Montale, Holderlin and Cartier-Bresson (photographer). The Mourning Dove and Middle of Life are two outstanding yet deceptively simple poems.
Jean Pedrick’s The World of Grey & The Man in the Picture is divided into two sections following the title of the chapbook. The first sections consists of thirteen poems about objects that bear the color grey: fog, ashes, mourning doves, tarmac, rainy nights, and so on. The second section gives us poems of (you guessed it) men, everyone from Bog Man and Potemkin through carnival barkers. At The Albertina and Ave Atque Vale, a slightly longer poem, are particularly noteworthy.
Tempting Fate, by Katherine Solomon, is poetry of transformation. In this series of poems we become Sappho, Galatea, a witch casting spells, a sculptor, a widow. The poet travels through Mexico and envisions the lives of those she meets, remembers playing cripple as a child when polio was rampant, and, in a heartbreakingly true and beautifully-crafted poem called Bread, she looks at war-torn Sarajevo, drawing unique and striking comparisons. She is a master in her use of imagery. Hare and Accidental Light’ are other standouts in an excellent collection.
Mappemonde is the work of a versatile poet, J. Kates. The chapbook contains found poems, a riddle, free-verse narratives, rhymed narrative and sonnets. Some are pervaded by a sense of grim irony, a slightly jaundiced wit. Others are incredibly tender, such as What I Can Take, The Woman in my Bed Talks about her Child, which, along with Painting in Blue, are poems that brilliantly illuminate this chapbook and make it shine. Thus ends the second volume of Walking to Windward.
Volume lll, Invocation, begins with the luminous chapbook, Invocation to the Birds, by Kristen Lindquist. These poems of transcendent joy revel in the daily miracles of everyday life, family and friends. They are rich with nature imagery and their endings are just wonderful. Especially notable are Grandmother, with its unforgettable line We want to be good animals, Hawk in a Tree, Roadside, and Fall, which ends Not the losses to come,/ but the geese unspooling// their ancient calls/ across the daylit moon.
Sidney Hall, Jr. is the author of the charming Chebeague, which brims over with warm good-humor. Reading The Black Dogs of Chebeague, The Women of Chebeague, and The Men of Chebeague might be an effective cure for depression. Mr. Hall’s island creates the world as most of us would like it to be. And the poem with which he ends the chapbook, A Clean Thought is a wry three-line gem so representative of his understated humor: So much more effective/ to be naked/ when you bathe.
Elizabeth Tibbets demonstrates her skill in delineating worlds for us with image and fine-tuned narrative in Perfect Selves. Many of these poems center around people the poet may have cared for, the afflicted and ill and very old, or their caretakers, the nurses themselves. We meet such a caregiver in the richly layered poem, A Nurse Reads A Book of Luminous Things. And the fine lyric When Lavender Comes is a gentle delight.
W. E. Butts is present to us in White Bees, a somewhat longer chapbook. The book begins strongly with the powerful meditation on memory, September and follows it with such fine poems as Today, Arboretum, and At The Harbor, to name just a few of the memorable poems he has given us in his book. His subject is the past and how it impinges on the present, how it haunts us and how it blesses us.
Another Stopping Place, by Candice Stover, is distinguished by its attention to detail, to very specific detail in exterior and interior landscape. Her multi-layered poems are poems of travel and memory and dream. Seven Postcards from Portugal is a series of seven vignettes, each its own poem, yet part of the Portuguese landscape they inhabit. Envoy of the Absolutes is a strong sestina and the nine part poem Off The Map is a fine ending to the chapbook.
The Rhetoric of Fiction is a series of twelve chapters in a marriage, a bad abusive marriage, by former Maine poet laureate Kate Barnes. It is notable for its rich imagery, clarity, and precision of language. And, oh yes, the story: the woman escapes, still longing for the blessing of her mate, for some sort of vindication in memory. The last poem, The Dining Car, is especially outstanding. This chapbook completes Volume lll.
L. R. Berger’s chapbook, Sightings, begins the fourth and final volume of the Walking to Windward series, the volume appropriately, also, named Sightings. These fifteen poems feature birds, either as subject or metaphor. There is one exception: the affirming The Crossing, celebrating human friendship and love, with these final four lines, You cannot speak for me,/ but when you speak I believe/ it is you that is speaking./ This sees me across. These are celebratory poems of the natural world that speak from an almost spare beauty and grace.
News from the Grate comes from the pen of Deborah Brown and places itself at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of subject. These poems delineate the constellation of family, using her own as model. In these wry, yet somehow hungry, poems, she brings us family life filled with her grandmother’s laughter, her mother’s anger, her sister’s difficult death. She juxtaposes wonderful contrasts, such as her husband’s tuna sandwich with her own poems (The Perfect Sandwich). As the poet says in The Death of a Mouse, This is a family story.
Grace Mattern’s Fever of Unknown Origin rests upon imagery from the natural world to express human feelings of passion, tenderness, and exaltation. The birth of a child, children and family, household tasks (the outstanding Laundry Basket), the passing of time, and the seasons are the subjects. This is poetry of continuity, of blessing. As such it is quiet and often understated so that the silences speak as profoundly as the words. The poems Passing, Back to the Body, and the title poem should not be missed.
Rhina P. Espaillat exhibits facility in use of the word in two languages in Mundo y Palabra – The World & the Word: the first four poems are in both Spanish and English.. For the most part, this is formal verse, traditional, rhymed poetry and Ms. Espaillat is a skillful master of the forms she uses, such as the sonnet. The poet’s dry wit shines in two of them: The Quetzal and Six of One. Among other poems, Bodega,’ Solstice and You Call Me By Old Names are outstanding.
In Coastal Bop, the final chapbook in the series, poet Betsy Sholl weaves jazz, the music of everyday noise, and the sounds of coastal waters into her narrative. We hear gospel music mixed with the sounds of the shower while learning how a daughter has reached recovery. In the noisy commotion of moving household appliances, her parents declining health is the focus. Monk and Coltrane echo through Ms. Sholl’s long, rhapsodic and luxurious phraseology; the masterful Half the Music consists of six sentences spread over three pages yet the story is never lost or obscured. It is fitting that Walking to Windward closes with poems about the music in our lives.
Each of the twenty-one chapbooks possesses its own brand of magic and reviews such as these cannot communicate the skill and craft that have gone into their creation. To enjoy them, you can contact Cicely Buckley, Editor, Oyster River Press, 20 Riverview d., Durham, NH 03824.
603-868-5006. They are also available at Amazon.com.