Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Goldilocks Reviews

In a rush to finish my run up Mont Blanc for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, I stayed up late-ish on New Year's Eve and savored three slim poetry books that had been on my TBR list for quite a while.

It worked out nicely to read them in such close proximity to each other because it made compare-and-contrast so very easy. At the end I felt a bit like Goldilocks, intent on finding the just-right poetry fix to conclude my reading for 2019.

Stag's Leap chronicles Sharon Olds' ambiguous experience as her long marriage ends, and the push and pull of the complex emotions involved. It's a crushing event that offers opportunities and a new freedom that's filled with sorrow. Olds' poems follow a seasonal arc as well as the zigzagging stages of grief, coming finally to the realization that her husband left her for another woman "because I/didn't suit him anymore -- /nor him, me, although I could not see it." The ultra-personal specifics sometimes get in the way, but Olds' honesty, perception, and wry humor make these poems strong and ultimately healing medicine.

Ted Kooser has a marvelous eye for detail and the matching of unusual likenesses. In some ways this is my favorite sort of poetry, the kind that can stop your eye as it flows over the page, recognizing the perfect match of image with image . . . but it's also -- especially when compared so closely with these other two works -- a little bit cold.  For example, I love the virtuosity with which Kooser turns a hand-washing moment into an arresting vignette: "She turned on the tap and a silver braid/unraveled over her fingers." At the same time, I found myself yearning for the detail that would tell me more about the emotional connections within these poems. Despite Kooser's masterful blending of engaging image and exceptional technique, that sense of cerebral distance left me unsatisfied.           

Eleanor Lerman, in contrast, seems always to be scanning the edges of sight for signs of what lies beyond the dailiness of experience. Her poems assemble images that are somehow more than the sum of their parts and I'm struck by the appropriateness of the book's title poem, "The Sensual World Re-Emerges," in which an ordinary commute home is transformed into something much more and Lerman leaves the reader to figure out (if possible) precisely what that is. 

. . . Just before
your reach the lighted street that leads
to home, from within a stand of trees

the sensual world re-emerges, in all its
naked, jackal-headed beauty, holding
the moon in its outstretched hand
But you aren't afraid: the sensual world
is an old friend. Or is it? . . .

Call me. I have left my number
everywhere. I want to know
how this story turns out

I love this level of detail, with Lerman suggesting emotional connection but allowing the reader to supply it: walking through darkness, before reaching the streetlights, imagine for yourself how the moon looks and what that feels like. This volume is, as Goldilocks might say, just right.

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