76Pages; Print, $16.95
On page forty-four of Donna Reis’s new book of poems, No Passing Zone, we read: “All those times he halted/his hand at the tip of her nose, / saying, I’m not finished speaking.” This is one marriage in a nutshell. We don’t need to know any more about these two people. The poem is “Forgotten” and touches on a twenty-year marriage that turned to stone. By the time the poem ends, the poet can’t remember what she was going to say. But is any of this marriage truly forgotten if the poet can sum it up so exactly?
No Passing Zone is full of poems that contain just such exact memories,—many of them memories of nearly dying in the snow after a hit-and-run accident. The title poem goes as follows:
How is it I’ve returned to this road? It was snowing then as it is now. It is dusk. Stone walls that once split my forehead tumble over the path where Hansel and Gretel trailed bread. The witch warned, Beware of cars that pass on the right. Keep off the shoulder, as I was milled to dust that now lights on your doorsill like silent snow.
The soul’s psychodrama is here in the compulsion to re-live the “accident.” The very first poem in the book begins: “I want to go back to the woods / where snow heated / my back and blanketed my legs / as I waited to be found.” Going back frequently to a near-death experience leads to drastic behavior in the present—for example, always carrying a powerful painkiller (Vicodin)—“because anything could happen.” This is the poet as “isolated,” as “troubled in mind” like Robert Lowell in Blue Hill, or trapped in horrific fairy tales like Louise Glück. Why else the Hansel and Gretel in “No Passing Zone?”
We are taught by such poets to write about our psychic wounds, and by poets like Sharon Olds to include the body’s memory, exact and excruciating, of these wounds. “Instauratio” is possibly the most powerful poem in the book, since it simply describes the poet’s painful recovery in the hospital starting with a doctor pulling a metal pin out of her elbow. It ends with her attempt to hold a carton of milk and drink from it. Step-by-step. Understated. Careful.
There are other sorts of poems in the book, including “Dorothy at Grasmere,” in which the poet exercises her historical imagination to speak as Dorothy Wordsworth at Dove Cottage, contemplating what she will cook William for dinner: “Then I will serve a nice piece of cookery/from boiled gizzards and mutton/or maybe a partridge with a hard-boiled/egg and a rhubarb tart.” This is a very satisfying poem, as is “Going for Coffee after an Al-Anon Meeting” in which each wife expresses her murderous wishes toward her alcoholic husband.
“Purple Loosestrife,” the last poem of the book, is a sort of hymn to unruly plants and other unruly things. It’s a sort of anthem sung by this accomplished poet. [End Page 25]
Stephanie Rauschbusch is a Brooklyn poet and artist.