January 12, 2011

Andrew Mulvania reviews Sally Rosen Kindred's No Eden

In the last decade or so, a number of younger Southern poets have been doing extremely interesting and convincing work at the intersection of an earthy yet lyrical realism and the realm of mythology, fairy tale, magic. One thinks here of Maurice Manning in his Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (2001) and The Common Man (2010), James Kimbrell in The Gatehouse Heaven (1998) and My Psychic (2006), or Jane Springer in Dear Blackbird, (Springer was a student of Kimbrell’s in the Ph.D. program at Florida State University). Essentially, this work represents the Southern Gothic reborn for the 21st Century, complete with Flannery O’Connor-esque figures of madness, degradation, despair, poverty, and neglect. Into this crowded field steps Sally Rosen Kindred with her exciting debut No Eden. Kindred’s is a world of sweetgum (shown on the book’s cover) and apple trees, blackbirds and Winn Dixie bags, and rain, rain, rain.

On the side of earthy—even gritty—realism are Kindred’s poems of a Southern childhood spent (as I gather) shuttling between small towns in Virginia, and North and South Carolina, with an alcoholic mother and a distant (absent through divorce?) father. The figure of the mother and motherhood is everywhere present in these poems, whether they directly address the speaker’s own mother, refer to other examples of mothering (such as Mrs. Snead in the book’s lovely opening poem, “Prayer for Mrs. Snead”), or point forward to the poet’s own role as a mother. These poems, perhaps the strongest in a strong book, ground us in the landscape—both psychic and real—which constitutes Kindred’s truest subject matter and include, along with “Prayer for Mrs. Snead”: “Vespiary,” “American Sweetgum,” “Twilight, 1974,” “I Find God Out Back,” “Flight,” “The Road to Orangeburg,” “Apple Night,” and others. Steeped in sensual detail distilled through the slow and mysterious work of memory, poems like the ones listed here allow the reader to return to his or her own primal experiences of childhood, as in these lines from “Apple Night” describing the theft of several apples from a neighbor’s orchard:

Now I am standing in Dusty’s father’s orchard
lifting the hem of my shirt
to cradle four tart moons, their skin
divided from mine by black cotton.
My feet bristle into grass, scratched bells.
I covet this dusk. I’m not hungry
for apples. My legs steam where their skin
lifts in hooks and stars from the fence’s
blood promise.

The moment described here, which reminds one of Augustine’s theft of some pears in Book II of his Confessions, constitutes a powerful moment in the poet’s own implied autobiographical journey in No Eden. (Incidentally, pears show up in the book’s title poem. A coincidence?) Kindred’s ability to re-inhabit these moments in poetry—“My feet bristle,” “My legs steam”—as Wordsworth does in his “spots of time” moments in his own autobiographical epic The Prelude is truly breathtaking.

The element of myth—alluded to in the title—comes in with Kindred’s poems on Noah and The Great Flood, as well as poems alluding to Eve, Lilith, Mary, and other biblical or Talmudic mother figures. These poems include: “To Noah,” “To Eve,” “Noah Waiting, Not Praying,” “The Raven’s Wife,” “The Raven’s Prayer,” “Testament of the Dove,” “Seven Sorrows,” “Our Liliths,” “Noah’s Wife Remembers,” and others. What’s particularly interesting about Kindred’s use of biblical myth is that, with the exception of the longer un-rhymed sonnet sequence, “Seven Sorrows” (which mentions Eve), “To Eve,” and the title poem, “No Eden,” Kindred rejects the easier and overused paradise myth of the Garden of Eden in favor of the second biblical paradise myth found in the Book of Genesis of Noah’s new beginning after the flood. What’s significant about this choice is the subject’s suitability for connecting it with the poet’s own autobiography: unlike the Garden of Eden myth, which imagines a perfect world from which fallen humans are cast out, the myth of The Great Flood imagines a world that is itself fallen and tainted through contact with fallen humans and which must be cleansed in order of having hope of starting over. This idea—of an already fallen world, of having come through a difficult experience and stepped out on the shores of the other side—seems most representative of Kindred’s sometimes bleak but still hopeful worldview, as in her address to Noah in the poem of that name (“To Noah”):

Do not speak of covenants
or gifts made out of sky.
Look at what survives the journey

into broken weather, broken story:
look at each face and into the wilderness eyes
and across the teeth and down to the hands

of your own righteous hungry people and ask them
to lift the garnet lanterns
and lead you all the way back up into this world.

The journey Noah makes here, as described by the poet, might well be said to characterize Kindred’s own journey in this book, through the autobiographical poems of a difficult childhood to the book’s final poem’s enactment of a kind of cleansing, “Mercy on Pecos Road.” In poems that range from persona to address to more indirect borrowings, Kindred makes effective use of the literary artifice of biblical myth.

One of the most moving and remarkable aspects of these poems, alluded to above, is their extraordinary ability to sympathetically enter the perspective of a child. Whether this derives from the poet’s own experience of motherhood or her Wordsworthian imagination, poem after poem, from “Raisin” to “Orange and Gold” to “Day School,” display her gift for rendering in language the child’s unique mind and way of perceiving. This takes a combination of a rare species of empathy and memory, as we can see so powerfully in these lines from “Raisin”:

The earth-flush taste of raisin
hurts like the grief of first grade—
red box pulled from the pantry

and stuffed in a paper bag,
zip of car-coat in the early dark
and a cold march to the bus.

Laces in tight bows, bag in your hand, that was it.

After setting the scene, Kindred fully enters the child’s point of view, and the reader is pulled right along with her. And the prose poem “Day School” is not to be missed for the same reason.

Despite a tendency to overuse the incantatory device of initial repetition in a number of poems (“Out of thorn-apple, out of love-apple” in “Prayer for Mrs. Snead”; “Lord of the screen-door swinging, “Lord of exile and sweet fright” in “I Find God Out Back”; “Sparrows of nightbreak, sparrows of moss” in “Flight”; “Into the desert pines, into the dusty throat” in “Mercy on Pecos Road”), the lyrical impulse runs strong and deep in this excellent first collection. It would be a hard-hearted and tin-eared reader indeed who couldn’t find himself seduced by the sinewy music of these poems. While the poems that spoke most deeply to me are the poems that speak most directly from the poet’s autobiography, having confidence in the power of their images to convey meaning without the need to rely on the artifice of myth, readers will find much to savor throughout No Eden. I returned to it many times with pleasure and admiration in preparing to write this review and look forward to doing so again simply to marvel at its many splendors.

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