September 20, 2013

Writing the Rhythms of Our Lives: A Review of Margo Taft Stever's The Hudson Line by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Main Street Rag Publishing
The Hudson Line by Margo Taft Stever
Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2012)

Review by Mindy Kronenberg

The passing of Irish poet Seamus Heaney has sparked numerous conversations, in both print and on the Internet, of how his work’s significance was due in part to its strong connection to the lives of determined and vulnerable citizens. He was described as a poet who capably expressed “the rhythms of ordinary lives,” by delving beneath domestic pantomime and finding an inner darkness or hope. Similarly, Margo Taft Stever’s The Hudson Line summons the stories of citizens along the route of a suburban commuter train—privilege providing little protection from the chaos that enters lives without warning. It is a haunting ride filled with longing, rage, fear, and a determination to find the right words to share the stories of one’s life.

Stever’s characters and scenarios are startling and evocative, capable of rousing panic while they plumb the emotional interiors of pending violence. Like parables, they are partly reportage and partly out of time, nearly magical in their lyrical narratives. For example, in a scene of marital carnage, a wife is driven to murder to protect her children. With chilling intimacy, she is transformed (“Splitting Wood”):
The wild moon foamed at the mouth.
The wild moon crept softly at her feet.

The arms that grabbed the ax
were not her own,
that hugged it to her heart

while he slept were not hers,
the cold blade sinking in his skin.
In “House Raising,” the vestiges of rigorous indoor children’s play result in a furious husband admonishing his wife. Her recollection of the children’s games becomes metaphorical for how creating a homestead (“…houses out of cushions, / intricate cities and roads / out of rugs and blocks,…”) can dissolve into stains and frayed remnants underfoot.

“The Worst Mother” and “Step-Mother” play upon fairy tale perceptions of failure and fright in the maternal dynamic. The first lists affectionate ritual (“Playing music / for you before / you were born,...”) and the suffering of a child’s illness (“The night you gagged / and choked up shreds… / I comforted you). The latter poem unleashes a litany of brutal powers (“The step-mother’s fangs lengthen / in moonlight.”) as well as the curse of circumstance (“A step-mother is always evil, / marked by the blood of her husband’s children. / She tries to climb into the other’s shoes).

Stever captures the complexity of what dwells beneath even the most cantankerous or hardened persona. In “Beulah Reid,” the “cruel nanny” taunts her charges with the sticks the children find outside (“Some are blunt, others sharp, / spring loaded. You twist them before us.”). She hisses at them “with damnation” and is reduced to an old broken woman with “…stocking pulled down over ankles, the corridors of your bulging / legs, your jutting veins…” who seeks the sedate strains of an old television show for elderly viewers. In an instant, the harridan is anyone’s aunt or grandmother, another transformation that mingles poignancy with pain.

The Hudson Line mixes cautionary tales with those of wonder and persistence (“The Quickening,” “Why So Many Poets Come from Ohio,” “Queen City”), and ignites the live wires of what ultimately makes us human. It is a testament to the poet’s empathy and grace, capturing the resilience and terrors of seemingly ordinary people.

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