Finishing Line Press
I am periodically asked to read the poetry of others and there is never any guarantee that it will be a happy task. However, in the case of Carol Hebald’s poem cycle, Colloquy, I find myself very agreeably borne along by her remarkable craft.
There is no clearly visible string running through the twenty six items that make up this bright line of verse but there is an offbeat integrity, nonetheless—a narrative flavor throughout that holds all together in theme and tone. The coherence is offbeat because it is accomplished through a sort of dream logic that is at once meticulously lucid and tantalizingly mysterious. While I surely have my favorites, along with a few reservations regarding matters of detail here and there, I would say there is not one weak link between the covers of this chapbook.
Hebald’s title is ingenious since this, her most recent collection, encompasses both definitions of “colloquy,” as a simple conversation and, more broadly, as a symposium on matters of theology. But there’s nothing impersonal or preachy about these verses—far from it. Each is an intimate examination of emotional damage in the light of mortality, faith, and forgiveness—ineffable stigmata are given voice in one authentic paradox after another, and there is a joy that rises over it all. Hebald is emotionally honest to a fault—she’s bold in the exploration of her fears and she’s not afraid to be angry, as in her biblical poem, “Catatonia in the Vestibule,” when she declares, “I hate a kindness / that condescends to feel,” and, again, in the robust closing lines, “And You just stand there / limp with mercy. / I wish You’d go away.”
If I must take serious issue with anything in Hebald’s work, then it would be with the minor matter of an occasional triteness in her language. It is as though her rather stunning originality forgets itself at times. This is a susceptibility Sarah Rose Exoo makes mention of in her review of Hebald’s 2005 verse collection, Spinster by the Sea, as a potential for “cliché,” though Exoo rightly notes that Hebald generally “achieves the difficult feat of infusing new life” into a potentially bland or repetitive usage. To my perhaps less tolerant ear, the most egregious example of the latter in Colloquy is the poet’s regrettable overuse of variants on the word “jewel.” “Jewel,” “Jewels,” and “Jeweled” crop up like weeds in close to a quarter of the collection’s poems, most flagrantly in the consecutive pieces, “Nightmare,” “The Seal,” and “Catatonia in the Vestibule.” It seems a little tragic when a weakness of this sort could so easily be remedied by a poet of Hebald’s caliber. However, if Carol Hebald has a blind spot it is relegated to the shadows of an exquisite brilliance. The sheer force of her verse—its sincerity—and the freshness and audacity of her imagery, is more than enough reason to pardon her shortcomings.
On the back cover of Colloquy, poet Barry Wallenstein notes that Hebald’s collection is “A dialogue between a…woman and her father, who died when she was a young child.” That premise is surely at the emotional heart of Colloquy, but the cycle is interwoven with many other levels of conversations and address. The “he” spoken to in so many of the poems is sometimes an upper case “He” and, Donne-like, the poet steps lightly between the earthly and divine. Furthermore, within Hebald’s personal faith, it often feels as though the lost familial father is near identical with an aloof higher being—certainly, there seems to be a persistent yearning for both. In “The Isolation Room,” a poem rife, as many are, with the language of Christian mythology, Hebald establishes a spiritual narrative that provides glimpses on the hellishness of her struggle with mental illness, when “She chose madness as a way to sense.” In the penultimate stanza she quotes a prayer: “Let His absence be my gift,” and, for me, this credo is quintessential to Hebald. It is...