- Reclaiming Their Youth
Sally Van Doren
Louisiana State University Press
77 Pages; Print, $18.95
In Promise: Poems, Sally Van Doren's wittily biting, sometimes enigmatic, always intriguing third book of poems, she grapples with love and loss, promises remembered, and life's promise yet to be fulfilled. At one point I could almost hear Joni Mitchell singing "Both Sides Now."
Simply labeled Parts 1, 2, and 3, these "chapters" provide an example of poetry as memoir, seen through a shattered mirror. Immediately following the book's dedication—"For Bert / Who kept time with his tail"—the poem "Or" introduces the process of renewal, beginning with "Every morning I let it all go / then it starts coming back," and ending with "and then I forget, and then I notice / that almost all the leaves are off the trees / and on the ground, save my three magnolias."
There's a lot of anger, sadness, and regret in Part 1. In "Divided," for example, the speaker says, "I washed my heart and pinned it / on the clothesline in the basement." At certain times I was sure that the poems in this collection were about the dissolution of a marriage. At other times I wondered if it's about dealing with her husband's death. Either way, the loss can be unbearable.
Reminiscent of a novel in which a marriage is pretty well done for, sex and sexuality are prevalent in many of these poems. Taken together, the message is quite clear: As stated in "Climbing Out of the Marvelous," "…We live / for sex or did you know that already?"
But then, in "Me, Myself and I," she asks and responds, "Why did we need him to monitor / our atomic mons? We re- / newed ourselves without him."
Lovely lines are found in unexpected places. In "Cahokia," for instance, "it's a muddy morning and the muck / sticks to our shoes…" is followed shortly by "our dreams climbing / up on the backs of the raindrops."
"Expecting Modification" is the lead-in to a group of poems describing the aftermath of what I can only assume is the poet's divorce proceedings. The word "arraignment" in "Bradford Road, around the Back" and the ensuing reference to a court case is nicely juxtaposed with the couple, out on their back deck and entertained by the birds and the bees, becoming "accessories to sex on the picnic table."
There is dark humor as well as raw anger in "For Love to Continue" and the poems that follow —poems about making and having babies. At the beginning of "Bound," which might easily be about an in-vitro pregnancy and birth, is one head-spinning group of lines:
Whoever impeached my son, whoeverpunched my son, whoever collapsedon my son, breaking the brittlecartoon appliquéd to our front door—I forgive you. Your rash wheezing though,is no substitute for doing the breakfast dishes.
"Reconciliation" cleverly attempts to describe a relationship that leaves the reader not so sure of its success. The poem's last stanza reads, "utilities go unpaid and / the furtive banker seeks / refuge in his calculator. / Time to settle the debt." This is borne out in the next poem, "At Least We're Over," which ends with "Such drama over / silver polish. Have / our grandmother's / eating utensils become / the instruments of our / last meal at her table?"
For me, the cleverness in "Color Theory" is not the use of colors for description but the imagery that occurs in the second stanza: "We turned on the flashlight / last night and saw a legless curtain / scurry over a dilated eye." It's moments like these that make Promises a pleasure to read.
"Pit Stop" combines fancy with fact: "I would pack clouds / in my briefcase;" "I forgot my landing gear;" "I developed a fear of telling stories / I could not finish." This is only one of several poems in Promises which include references to flying, fear, and the fear of flying. How could I not think of [End Page 23] Erica Jong's iconic novel and both women's desire to soar into the...