May 31, 2014

Remedies in Songs and Silences: A Review of Toadlily Press's Mend & Hone by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Toadlily Press
Mend & Hone by Elizabeth Howort, Dawn Gorman, Leslie LaChance, Janlori Goldman
Toadlily Press (2013)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

I first became acquainted with Toadlily’s quartet series back in 2008, when I reviewed their third collection, Edge by Edge. Each book in the series brings together four poets in separate sections that are essentially “joined” chapbooks of 13-14 poems each that find common ground within differing styles and approaches. It’s a marvelous idea that increases by number and literary style the experiences of discovery and transition, and Mend & Hone proudly continues this tradition.

The volume begins with Elizabeth Howort’s section, “Turning the Forest Fertile.” These prose-like, untitled pieces float on the page, dream-like, referencing the silences we need to immerse ourselves in experience, to turn inward. They also beckon the reader to listen for music that rises through an unfurling leaf or the calamitous pulse in a city of pedestrians and traffic. “I looked in the shops and cafes, bars and museums, but silence was nowhere. / Who hears her breath amid sirens?” Howort asks in the third piece.

Silence and sound—the pastoral and urban—intertwine, blend, and evade. Howort presents this in a Zen-like series of statements (“What sound does a fruit make when falling? // A branch upon release?” “My breath is a foyer that moans with entrance, exit.” “When we hold silence we do not answer.”) and psalm-like passages, as we learn how elusive and profound silence is. She explains:
Out of silence, light:
a blessing on your eyes,          acres.

Out of the silence, space:
A place to inhabit:                   field,

You invite me into the garden.
A third pulse.

You invite me into silence and say

We are drawn, weightless, into a world of diminishing wilderness and overgrown urban landscape, hovering and anchored by the music and libretto of our hopefulness.

Dawn Gorman’s imagistic, lyrical poems in “This Meeting of Tracks” find fascination with time, memory, and the juxtapositions that can encourage longing, regret, or denial. In “Stiletto,” a nearly surreal appearance of the shoe “on top / of the spiny winter twigs” causes no discussion in a rural place that readers are told has no secrets or unturned stones. “The rain has warped the insides, but the toe still lines up hail clouds / like a stealth bomber. // They keep their eye on it, though; / farmers, mothers, priests / all remember a shoe like that.”  In “Buried,” an act of love outdoors is roused in memory by the images of trees: “The beeches silenced us, / their sudden amphitheatre / spread brown / with last year’s empty nut shells.” The hard evidence, a condom, was buried, according to the poet “under the crushed shells / where nothing would grow. I imagine it there now, re-routing nature / still.”

There are forces to be reckoned with—nature and intimacy—that Gorman summons with drama, as in “Wave” where a storm whirls beneath the surface, prompted by “a passing thought…” Yet, she writes, it:

…builds, rises, coming unstoppably,
turns darker blue, green, triumphant turquoise
then ruffles and tumbles and wallops forwards
huge, heavy, froth leaping, flying. …

Or conjures quietly, as intense but fleeting desire in “Blue,” where a chance encounter at an airport summons longing amidst short, polite conversation (“…I have precious minutes/to watch the hands / I ache for.”).

Leslie LaChance’s poems in “How She Got That Way” endear with their wit, cleverness, and celebratory air—even as she allows poignancy to effortlessly emerge from between the lines. In “Strange Little Enthusiasms” LaChance extolls the virtues of indefinite articles, “…so small, so full / of possibility and yet complete?” She continues:

…We go
For a walk. I tell you a secret; we make a pact. See how easy it is

with just a few little words? A mouth, a breath, a long
kiss, and then another. …

In “Literary Landmark: A Valentine” a hangover after a drunken declaration of love in an Irish pub is immortalized in a photo taken the day after the carnage. Speaking directly to her beloved (“You proved your love with one hand / holding my hair back, and the other tilting the ice bucket to my chin…”) she recounts standing with him “on the Great Dead Writer’s front porch with a pair / of headaches, a camera, and go figure, a future.” “Nocturne” possesses a wistful beauty, visually and emotionally stunning, inspired by the simple act of removing one’s—and rousing the memory of removing another’s—glasses. LaChance describes:

I took my glasses off and set them
open on an open book. Later
when I came back into the room,
they looked so melancholy in the lamplight—
there on the dining room table
trying to read Tolstoy by themselves.

Janlori Goldman’s “Akhmatova’s Egg” rounds out Mend & Hone with poems that are personally inspired yet have the confident stride and linguistic grace of domestic parables. These poems deal with mortality, love, and the pain in living that fuels indignation that sometimes fuels hope. In “Yom Kippur,” the poet is in synagogue and begins:

Today everything hurts, and I’m as close to

god as I’ll ever come
or want to be. I try to forgive myself, fist knocking at the chest,

a door that forgot how to open. The prayer book’s spine
against my palms, I sing loudly to drown out the dandruff

flaked on the suit in the next row, sing as if I do believe…

Even after her mind wanders to the spiritual disappointments of the past and back, she eventually “thinks of the woman asleep in the window well on my block, blonde / wisping out of a hoodie, sneakers on the sidewalk like slippers by a bed” and wonders about her own ability to reconnect to faith.

In “At the Cubbyhole Bar” the reader is an invisible guest as the poet and her friend, a First Responder (the dedication reads “for Donna Bianco, retired NYPD sergeant”) share the small and large horrors of family dysfunction and global disaster. The discussion leads from a father dead from AIDS, to a dinner fight between mother and daughter, to the unimaginable, as Goldman writes:

That morning, after the buildings buckled,
a brown skirt of cloud billowed up.
            You saw her, a bleached blonde
in purple satin shirt, no body
            Below the waist, thought how a human head
Weighs 8 pounds, lifted that weight
            Of a newborn, zipped the bag.

The startling imagery of these poems also presents the forces of nature, as in “Cyclone” (“The twister lifts a home’s petticoats, / holds its skirts/high over the pasture, …”) and “The Bear” (“A grizzly crawls into the station wagon— / its left leg mangled—finds a plastic soldier / and red dinosaur on the backseat.”) and ultimately, the force of life itself, as in “baking in the 8th month.” She recalls “rosemary-soaked olives and sea salt, my mouth / in licked delirium from this warm bread. // yeast swells, opens the well of yearn and ache/ for the grain at its start. dark under the cheekbones, // darker from the navel straight down, this rise / a sign of life inside, my acre swollen to the brim.”

Mend & Hone is a fine collection of distinctive voices that brings pleasure in the discovery of what ails and heals us. Each poet captures the confounding and consistent challenges of being human with language that seeks emotional detent with its subject matter.  It is a welcome addition to Toadlily’s quartet series.

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