TWO CHAPS by ELIZABETH RABY and PAUL MARTINANN E. MICHAELS reviews
Ten Degrees above Zero by Elizabeth Raby
(Jasper Press, Richlandtown PA, 2005)
Morning on Canal Street by Paul Martin
(FootHills Publishing, Kanona NY, 2005)
If we had no memories, how could we write poetry? It is difficult to imagine a literature of the immediate; and yet, immediacy is a term used to praise good poetry. The mature poet, no matter what his or her chronological age, balances immediacy and memory, honors both. Such a writer can present us with compelling pieces that are “about” long-ago events, employing details and perspective inventively, not just authentically. And I put “about” in quotes, because the resulting poems are seldom solely about one past experience; they provide significant, moving links with the present life of the reader, as well.
Both Paul Martin and Elizabeth Raby accomplish such balancing acts in the chapbooks under review. Raby’s book, Ten Degrees above Zero, opens with five poems that set scenes and seasons, including the title poem, where the geese are pushed downstream “against their desire” and the Cuban refugees are “afraid green was lost to them/forever. Still, they endured, even laughed./They had learned to hope against reason.” The poem “I Thought Freedom Meant Never Looking Back” begins a suite of pieces that evoke memoir whether or not they are based on the author’s experiences, and several of these give us swift, tantalizing glimpses of a mother-daughter relationship that is rich and complex but ultimately a bit veiled, as in “Romance.” In this brief poem, going through her mother’s scarf-drawer uncovers
of Chanel No. 5, crystal-
stoppered, sent by her sailor
brother from far Paree.
The unused scent, the whisper
of chiffon clinging to my probing
fingers—the beautiful secret
mother I desired.
Instead, mother is a person for whom leisure is foreign, “never at home in the life she achieved.” And what is the life we achieve? How do we define it, Raby seems to ask, in some of the other poems in this collection. The sixth-grade girl in “Poet-in-the-School” defines herself imaginatively, distinct from the mean, dirty girl she says other people know her as. The tourist of “In Transit” asks herself whether she would be a helper or a betrayer had she lived during the time of the Underground Railroad. In the last poem, “Ritual,” the woman immerses herself in pool water, “A rehearsal for her return to the elements...” We readers can appreciate this sort of need for touch and this immediacy in the experience of the lives we have achieved.
Paul Martin’s Morning on Canal Street owes even more to Mnemosyne than does Raby’s collection. Martin opens with a memory-piece and the book unfolds like a good story, through wonderment and confusion and sorrow—a perfectly-pitched progression of well-crafted poems, not a word out of place. From the slow-paced couplet stanzas of “The White Bird” (which ought to be anthologized over and over again so that more people could become acquainted with it) to the narrative speed of “Empty Bottles,” Martin’s poems manage, (like, say, Billy Collins’?) to sound simple and mean deep. In “Days, Years,” a snapshot narrative about remembering “my father working/on the railroad section gang,/pausing, at fifty-eight, to straighten/his back and catch his breath” becomes a hymn not to the workingman but to the wind, to endurance, to breath itself. Several moving poems allude to a brother’s illness and weave the mischief and ambiguity of childhood experiences into the work of the poetry. From “The River”:
Now, it seems, only pain
slows the days as long
as those we played away
summers on the island,
climbing trees, swimming
in that hole between the boulders
we named Stagecoach and Saddle...
...until, at the poem’s close, the boys lie “back in the coal silt, wondering/out loud where the river began/and where it ended,/growing quiet until there was only/the current’s slap and wash.”
In both of these collections, the poets’ perspectives are specific, keen, just slightly surprising. The subtlety of that surprise is what makes the difference between predictable memoir and insightful poetry that has something to teach, share, unfold. These are “quiet” poems that avoid edginess and do not rely on technical ingenuity to accomplish their tasks. Simply reading them is enough.
Ann E. Michael is a poet, essayist and librettist whose work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies. Her chapbook More Than Shelter (2004) is available from Spire Press, and she has two chapbooks forthcoming in 2006, one from FootHills Publishing and another from Finishing Line Press. She is a recipient of a PA Council on the Arts fellowship in poetry and currently teaches at DeSales University. Her website is www.annemichael.com