- The Blue Dress: Poems and Prose Poems, and: The Ceremonies of Longing
In Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, John O'Donohue writes, "the poet must reach deeper inward, go deeper than the private hoard of voices down to the root-voice." Both Alison Townsend and Sandra Kohler write poems that call upon "the private hoard of voices" in their lives-those issuing from the natural world, from the body, from memories of and experiences with loved ones-in order to find and speak to us in the "root-voice."
Although there is much to engage the critical eye in Townsend's poems, the charm of their language and her deeply engaging metaphors lead one toward more of a meditative than a critical frame of mind. Indeed, I frequently found myself so engrossed in the immediacy of the [End Page 207] worlds Townsend invokes that it was difficult to step beyond their borders to examine them from a critical distance.
These poems also enchant because they frequently lead the reader through metamorphoses. Some are lighthearted, as when the speaker remembers imagining herself as a "shiny black filly with a lilt to her gallop" in "My Life as a Horse." But even this playful fantasy of transformation prefigures a more serious-and in some ways tragic-change as it alludes to this game occurring "before breasts, / before blood flowed, before boys' bodies / made me too aware . . ." The transformative power of the imagination also allows the speaker to imagine herself as hero. As a girl, she reads Joan of Arc's story while listening to her father and stepmother arguing downstairs. Her desire for action and escape finds the speaker "itch[ing] to try on the tunic / of glittering mail . . . ," to "leap to obey / some divine instruction, // or agree to be a martyr," and becoming, before our very eyes, a spectacle of suffering as she "put[s] on the armor I'd pounded out / on the blazing anvil of family / until it fit like my own skin, / and I was burning up inside." The poem ends with her back to being "an ordinary girl" with "nothing but the imagination / between her and the world."
Indeed, imagination becomes both shield and lens as Townsend's poems reenter a host of traumas. Even these, however, are sometimes prone to transformation as the poet examines and redeems them via the word. Just as ingredients for a recipe are magically changed into something new, the speaker suddenly realizes as she makes "My Stepmother's Ambrosia" that the woman who had entered her life too soon after her mother's death has become "the mother I wanted, / old hurts laid away like clothes I've long outgrown." While the speaker's struggle with depression is frequently visited in these poems, even its terrors become a thing of beauty under Townsend's artful touch, and one can't help thinking that the girl who dreamed herself a warrior has found her battleground. The poems themselves are her victories, as well as archives in which others will find their sufferings recorded as triumphs in the end.
The theme of metamorphosis reaches its greatest intensity in the poem's final section in which the speaker's mother appears as an all-too-mortal fairy godmother figure who recognizes that her young daughter will need all the beauty she can give her before she is left motherless. Shortly before her death, she sees that her daughter is enamored of her "Silver Shoes" and buys her her own special pair in a "Ladies size five." Townsend's ability to touch the reader's heart while avoiding sentimentality is evident in the near dark of the poem's final lines as the speaker, a girl on the verge of womanhood, tries on the shoes "one more time before bed." The mother "slip[s] them onto [her] feet" and watches as her daughter "wobble[s] on them," finally "walk[ing] away from you / into the shadows, light / sparking out around me / with every step I took."
The magic sparked...