|What a Life Can Mean:
Two Poetic Views
A Review of
Two New Poetry Collections:
Review by Joel E. Jacobson
Through The Alphabet Conspiracy, award winning poet Rita Mae Reese uses her extensive knowledge of word etymology to create poems that challenge political, religious and relational control. One will find a sestina, a rondeau, a villanelle, a sonnet, and a variety of free verse poems that move with a provocative intensity. For example, the opening poem, “Intercession”, identifies a patron saint with anything and everything, even the “children with no one to / pray to and nothing to do” (50-51). The poem’s playful opening quickly becomes divisive as almost every line begins with either “For” or “Against.” Reese effectively draws a line in the sand between those who pray and those who don’t, the religious right and the religious wrong, men and women, homosexual and heterosexual, those in control and those being controlled, and spends the rest of the collection justifying her rejection control.
Additionally, Reese focuses on rejection and abandonment, as the title poem, “The Alphabet Conspiracy”, portrays a child who has to come to grips with the death of her sixth-grade teacher. Reese writes, “[T]he letters of the world rise up / and, [form] a single word, / eclipse our world and fill our mouths with shadows”(63-65), which ultimately forces the speaker to use language to define the undefinable. While abandonment and confusion blanket the surface of this poem, subtle hints begin to emerge regarding ways that humans control each other: “Without words / no one could tell us what to do. / We know grammar is just a byproduct” and “history is a series of conspiracies / by accidental depots” (20-22, 25-26).
In “Meaning to Milk”, Reese covers the human journey—both personal and universal—in moving from origins, “From the Sankrit duh, / the [world’s] . . . stream / of daughters” (1-3) to the Biblical story of Jael killing Sisera, to girls milking their cow. The poem moves from abstractions to a story to a concrete image, uniting them all with milk, the one activity linking the human race since the beginning of time. The Alphabet Conspiracy shifts focus here, as the poem shows “young maids / pulling and pulling / the white streams into / the pails of morning” (13-16). This final image is asexual, emphasizing reproduction and passing life from one generation to the next without men, as if men lack the power of a woman and her milk.
Sexual innuendo permeates these poems, turning openly homosexual in “Watson and the Shark.” In describing a painting by John Singleton Copely, Reese describes the naked boy being attacked, and how “the young man rowing / in the back, with anguished face, must love you” (16-18). In the end Watson knows his “eyes suddenly see / what we’ve seen all along” (23-24). Establishing empathy and favor for homosexuals, Reese chastises heterosexual men for “deciding what is civilized and destroying what isn’t” (“For Western Violence and Brief Sensuality: A Rondeau, 7) and praises her own lesbianism in “Smite, Smitten,” “Womanless,” and “You Bring Out the Dead In Me.”
Reese shows familiarity with the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition, yet openly and confidently rejects the God of the Bible. According to the poet, men are destructive, God is controlling, careless, and blind, and so she rejects the authority of both. Reese cynically refers to her own death and damnation in light of her life story. In “The Plagiarist”, Reese states, “Later—in hell—I’ll make sure / I quote you” (10-11). In “You Bring Out the Dead in Me”, the final poem of the collection, Reese writes of judgement and poets and God “all crowd[ing] / up inside me, electric wires writhing” (9-10). The poet synthesizes rejecting control and taking control, and is content giving God the middle finger, herself “[rising] up, as good as dead” (15).
Reese’s poems, individually, are potent, powerful, and convicting. Unfortunately, in her quest to shed control, Reese proves to be just like those she is rejecting by jamming the reader into a box of forced perception regarding God, society, and sexuality. As a collection, The Alphabet Conspiracy fails to escape the iron grasp from which it so earnestly desires to be freed.
Much like W.S. Merwin, the meditative tone of Anne Coray’s A Meadure’s Hush provides simple, slowly revealed images of death, life, and aged renewal. One would expect such restraint from a poet living in the vast, open landscape of Alaska. The opening poems present us with images distinctly void of color and life, as if we were placed in a vacuum, robbed of sound and sight. Just when the exploration of literal and symbolic death is almost suffocatingly unbearable, Coray moves towards life and creation by incorporating painting terminology and techniques into the poems, all the while contemplating her own existence. The collection moves from a colorless gray to a vibrant glow exploring the meaning of moments. Coray understands that “you cannot make meaning” (“Collage”, 10), or force meaning into a poem, painting, or even life itself. “Watercolor” synthesizes painting and poetry, stressing the importance of using the right color, the right word to create a complete image. In describing watercolors then, Coray actually reveals what is most important in making a poem powerful: “This palette is all earth tones: walnut, terra cotta, dun. / The grass stain on the bent knee. Perfectly transparent” (8-9). In forcing us to be transparent with her poetry, Coray leaves us no choice but to evaluate our own understanding of life. A Measure’s Hush moves through the seasons, from death to life, from confusion to understanding, ultimately challenging us to mediate on what our lives have become, to be beautiful, “to lift / the dense and wind-dried wood, return to a layering of fine paper” (“A Hand Half in Darkness”, 16-18).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com