- Ashes & Heirlooms
Four Way Books
53 Pages; Print, $15.95
Bright Hill Press
34 Pages; Print, $10.00
Two contemporary women poets bring the news from different but complementary worlds.
Laurel Blossom devotes the whole of Longevity to a single story of four women. Two are herself and a younger sister, Margaret, “Midge.” Is she the same person as the blue-suited woman who “falls up, on blue, unfolded wings” from a window of the stricken Twin Towers? The poet shields us from that knowledge by leaving the terrible fact uncertain at first, though in the course of the book it becomes more certain. The other two women are a dying friend, Lucy, sometimes Midge’s rival for the poet’s affection, and a mother, laid in her coffin but living on in her daughters. From the opening image of the bright September day that marked us all, we move through previous and subsequent scenes that demonstrate the “extreme ephemerality” of the body and of the poet’s main characters.
By contrast, Lynn McGee’s brief but rich chapbook, Heirloom Bulldog, describes a universe where non-human animals are as salient as any human one, including the poet herself. The collection is dedicated to a grandfather “who told me ‘Always feed your animals first.’” In the poem “Fly,” she prays to that ubiquitous insect: “Teach me to savor / what I find / and how / to be precise.” The poet challenges the usual hierarchy of creatures when she describes, instead of a human observing birds, a raptor that “[studies] the twitching leaves / and regards the humans / in their habitat.” Other reversals of perspective abound in both these collections, as different as they are. Both are to be recommended as adventures in thought as well as moving works of verse.
The Longevity poet, for example, challenges ordinary sequences of time: “Chronology is meaningless,” writes Gertrude Stein in one of the book’s epigraphs. Lucy, the cancer victim, after her death, continues to speak from her “so-called answering machine….It feels like yesterday” that the now dying woman brought a Spanish shawl back from her honeymoon. “Memory catches on the sprockets of grief.” Who can forget the TV footage of 9/11, when the stations, running out of fresh news, played tapes of buildings “falling over and over, endless recurring infinity loops?” Those who had died kept returning to our screens to reenact the moment of their destruction. Poetry makes it possible to juggle chronology without explanation, not in order to be surreal or fashionably tricky, but in order to express truths of experience, especially at times of grief.
Telling her tale of four women, Laurel Blossom makes skillful compositional use of recurrent phrases, often verbless—for example, these phrases based on a term from a critical article on fashion: “The present. The body. Its extreme ephemerality, then, some pages later, Spring in its extreme ephemerality.” Or take the phrases related to Midge’s field, the stock market: “Meantime [after 9/11] the stock market went right back up again. At another time She said sell.” Ebullient at her wedding, Margaret comments on “a temporary disturbance.” Mingled with the pathos of family deaths comes “The market, meantime, hit another all-time high,” and, soon after, “The market had its worst week, [End Page 19] points dropped, ever.” I take these allusions, apparently arbitrary, as ironic reminders of an index that measures the well-being of the few and exhibits shocking indifference to the many and their ordinary sufferings.
Details of Lucy’s death, are given in similar clipped phrases separated by long empty spaces:
She craves chocolate.Blue, sunken around the eyes, she pursed herlips the way old people do.
It’s spread to her bones.
After the death of the poet’s close friend, the narrative, characteristically, proceeds backward into the history of her own life with her sister and the crazed caretaking of their mother, whose strange habits of speech—“No narrative…no prose, only phrases…symbols, associations, silence. Poetry”—may have originated the poet’s own style: The...