Poems of Experience
Francine M. Tolf, Rain, Lilies, Luck. Northstar Press of St. Cloud, Inc., St. Cloud, MN, 2010, 81 pages
Larry D. Thomas, The Skin of Light, Dalton Publishing, Austin, Texas, 2010, 64 pages
Rebecca Foust, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, Many Mountains Moving Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2010, 80 pages
As is my custom in GHLL, I have put together under one heading my reviews of three different books of poetry by poets who have published in the journal. Though I choose which books to review as they come in, I never consciously choose books that might "review" well together, so I make life even more difficult for myself by having to find something more in common with the titles than their each being by GHLL poets. This time around, the serendipity is so certain that I worry my readers won't believe the initial grouping was not planned from the start. All three of the poets whose work I am reviewing came relatively late to poetry. Though two of them do have graduate degrees in creative writing, those degrees were proceeded by many years in other professions and pursuits. Yet each poet has found an impressive amount of publication and recognition in the relatively short time since they switched over to seeing themselves first as poets. Larry D. Thomas retired in 1998 from a thirty-one year career in social service and adult criminal justice and has published eleven books of poetry in the past thirteen years, of a quality sufficient to have him named the Texas Poet Laureate in 2008. Francine M. Tolf, whose first published poem was with GHLL about a dozen years ago, when she was working as a secretary in Chicago, has since earned graduate degrees in creative writing from Kansas State and U. of Minnesota, and published three poetry chapbooks and a memoir, as well as this first full collection. And Rebecca Foust, after a career in law, just completed an MFA in 2010 from Warren Wilson College and has published two chapbooks and a co-authored book of poetry and art. All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, reviewed here, won the Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Award and was a finalist for the 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize and the 2011 Foreword Book of the Year Award. So, what these three poets clearly have in common is the experience of having lived life fully before attempting to write poetry about it. Though some say poetry is a young person's game, and though I certainly admire some younger poets myself, the depth of emotional honesty tied to poetic control apparent in each of these collections, makes me pretty sure there is something to be said for those who wait, standing or otherwise.
My own experience and perhaps bias suggests that the great theme of all literature, and especially poetry, is loss. If this is true, it is at least close to commonsensical that poets who have lived longer and who have not been in too big a hurry to write down their creative insights, are more in touch with real loss and more aware of how people who don't first consider the material of life as pre-writing exercise, confront that loss. These poets thereby present us with poems that are less concerned with making the poet seem talented, erudite or masterful and more with the intricacies of human connection through the disconnections of what must perish.
Larry D. Thomas's The Skin of Light certainly supports my theory. Two of the early poems from his collection tersely but convincingly connect phenomena of nature to his specific suffering. In a poem of only thirty-two words, "Blue Ice," he connects the oldest ice of a glacier, which has the same pale blue as the sheets he and his wife lay upon "to …the night/ you knew I first/ suspected/ your affair." And in "Gibbous Moon" he sees how the moon's almost-fullness relates to how "my first two/ marriages/ almost lasted." Thomas also sees how, along with "…music, art museums/ and poems," it is nature that can provide the "the skin/ of light/ I'll need/ to almost/ get me/ through the night." After a long experience with loss in love and other areas, the writer has come to discover how art is one of our only rescues from full despair, or, as James Baldwin puts it in "Sonny's Blues," "it's the only light we've got in all this darkness." It's no coincidence then, that the final poems in the book are written about paintings and other forms of visual art, ranging from Cathedrals to piñatas.
There are a lot of interconnections among the poems; one poem leads to or suggests the next few even more than is common in most books of poetry. For example, "Dying Vulture at Sundown" (I admire how much death Thomas can fit into a four word title- not only is the bird dying, but he's a lugubrious bird famous for living off the just dead, and the day is also at its end) begins a sequence of poems also about death, "The Nurse," "The Black Lake," "Grief," and "The Crows." Most poignant is the explicit connection in "The Crows," between images of carrion and decay and the poet's own craft, "On Death alone/ my dark kind fattens./ I roost in dead trees,/ gurgling the bold,/ black poem/ of my Self."
Robert Phillips, in his blurb for the book, says what he admires most is Thomas's "emphatic poems about God's humbler creatures- grackles… cathedral rats, cattle, goldfish, mayflies." I also have noted and agree with Phillips' assessment somewhat, though I'd extend it beyond just animals. Though the last section of the book has many fine examples of ekphrasis on paintings by people as diverse as Picasso, Van Gogh and Hopper, my favorite poem of the "With Fields of Pure Color" section is the very last one, "Piñata." This poem emphasizes one last time several of the major themes of the collection all tied to the familiar object of children's party games. These include the miracles in the commonplace: "its mastery of line/ and intricately executed volume"; art's near-triumph over death, "this magnificent quetzal/ hovering like a sunset/ above the black, gaping mouth of the night," and the loss inherent in all things: "to shower the blameless legions/ of blindfolded children beneath it." It is the poet, especially the poet who has lived in the workaday world for many years before even attempting poetry, who maybe can best see the connections between high art and everyday examples of the painfully beautiful.
Rebecca Foust in All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song begins to make her own case for art as a prime way to rescue ourselves from loss and grief in the prelude poem to her collection, "Altoona To Anywhere." While the ostensible subject of the poem is the futility of trying to "transcend" her "hardscrabble roots… escape the small-minded tyranny/ of our mountain bound/ coal mining town," the wisdom of the lyric comes with the recognition that confronting all the bad things in life, "the same husbands sleeping around,/ addiction, cancer, babies born wrong," is only the first step. The poet is the one who can translate all that, who can see the "song" of any life as simultaneously "gorgeous" and "pitiless." And Rebecca Foust, who tells us in her poem "The Well" that her last name means "fist," is up to the challenge of delivering that unrelenting song of life in all its variations.
Though not nearly all the poems are personal narratives, the basic arc of the book follows the poet from her time as a member of a working class family in Altoona, on to her upper middle class life, with a family of her own, in California. Many of the poems in the first half of the book deal with her parents, and particularly their last days. There are differing levels of sympathy for those who have passed out of her life, ranging from her direct and heart-rending sense of loss upon her mother's death "You're my soul's/ phantom limb;/ I don't know now/ where I am," to her fairly brutal recall of her abusive step-father's lonely death, "The calamitous stink of you,/ face down alone for four days/ before strangers kicked in the door." Foust is no sentimentalist; there's a sense of the fist of her name coming down to hammer for just, rather than falsely sympathetic, feelings. At the same time she is too savvy to expect life ever to be fair, as in her poignant poem "The Dream," detailing both her father's death from cancer and the continuing diminishing of his dreams to try to face his grim, real circumstances. Yet, even in the last lines the father refuses to stop dreaming, "Light. Warmth. Food. Breath. Until he dreamed/ himself dreaming a dream, then nothing." And the love and honesty Foust received from her parents, and the tough background of her life in Altoona, serve her well in her subsequent life, as she fights for some measure of fairness and happiness for her autistic son.
This fight begins right at birth with a sardonically angry poem, "Apologies to My OB/GYN." Foust, who most often is masterful in her use of imagery and metaphor (for example, in "The Cormorant" she uses an epigraph from Paradise Lost that compares Satan to the bird, but in the opening lines of her poem sees the black cormorant as a clergyman instead: "dusty black feathers/ that fray the frockcoat of this dour,/ penurious parson.") chooses a highly effective prosiness here with lines such as: "Sorry we were such pains in your ass,/ asking you to answer our night calls like that." It is clear that Foust has used her anger as a way of advocacy for her son, who survived a premature birth to grow into a child, "saving hopeless-case nymph moths/ trapped in the porch light." Though the book is more versatile than I may be indicating, with poems about everything from a Holocaust guard brought to justice, "A Kilogram of Salt," to travel poems with a sense of guilt for the privilege her later life has given her, "Marrying Up," "Safari," the poems that bring unity to the collection are about family and its many conflicts and the tough, insistent love that brings meaning out of misery. Place matters so much in many of these poems, but by the time a reader is finished with the volume, he or she will recognize the truth Foust has fought to share with us: a person can leave behind her family's geography, social class, interests, but they never really let go of you, and there is a freeing beauty in recognizing how they have made you who you are. The book's final poem, "Allegheny Mountain Bowl (Reprise)" shows an appreciation for the work her family and others did to make her life with books and poetry possible,
…Easy for a girl
reading Ivanhoe to natter on about diademed branches
and fledged clouds over fields still frozen like iron
in April; she wasn't splitting the furnace wood; she
didn't have to dredge the well the summer it went
And Rebecca Foust, who has also told us that Rebecca means "most faithful," has brought the honesty and directness of her Allegheny working class upbringing fully to bear in all of these poems, or as she phrases it in the next to last poem of the work, "From Function, Form," "Not some/ whimsy or homespun rebellion,/ but a faithful rendering. What she saw."
Another poet who insists on seeing what is there, but who perhaps is more willing to reshape its possibilities into something poignantly beautiful is Francine Tolf. In Rain, Lilies, Luck Tolf brings her considerable poetic gifts to bear on the nature of loss and the potential efficacy and even necessity of a poetic response to it. I don't have to look any further than the back cover blurbs of the book to find I'm not alone in seeing this thematic bent. Jim Moore writes, "Like so much poetry that really matters, loss is at the center of Rain, Lilies, Luck. But Moore also notes the poems of "great joy" that arise precisely with this loss as inspiration. Jude Nutter argues that many of the poems serve as a collective "ars poetica; as lyric statements on the function and necessity of poetry." Yet though Tolf, like Thomas and Foust, seems also to see how poetry is one of our few and best weapons against despair, she never seems to use it as a weapon, since her poems are more delicately poised with a fragile hope that turns always away from a fisted approach.
It isn't that she refuses to express anger. The first poem of the collection "A Letter, A Request" is angry at the painter Gauguin for "the pornography/ you decorated your cottage with,/ the twelve-year-olds you bribed into bed;" but before the poem ends, Tolf also recognizes her own failings, her hypocrisies "and without the saving grace of genius." The very next poem admits a bitterness about her father, many years after his death, but it isn't without the admission, "You did your best,/ Dad. I know that." The anger in these poems, from the first, then, is not self-righteous, but, rather, a means towards insight, an examination of how and why we let ourselves be controlled by those things we cannot retrieve or change, a painter's biography, a father's mistakes, our own.
But Francine Tolf's poetry never lets itself be limited by sorrow and sometimes insists on getting the most out of the merest possibilities. In "And the Sky" she finds herself drawn from a poetry reading that "dazzled" her into a brighter appreciation of the cityscape she reënters- a man carefully bagging cookies, a lavender sky. And in "Connecting The Stars" it is once again an art form, this time a painting at the Chicago Art Institute, which rescues her from her miserable boss at a law firm, who had "eyes like dead marbles," though it isn't only a painting she views but a stranger with a "sweet, startled gaze" who retrieves the hope of her day. Of course, in "Once In A While," she calls a personified Hope, "a nasty little bitch," but while Tolf sees hope in that particular poem as a kind of cynical seductress, Tolf herself is a purveyor of hope of the sort that is genuinely enlivening rather than a suckerpunch waiting to happen.
The examples of her ability to transform something potentially negative into something far brighter in its possibilities are numerous. In "Snowstorm" Tolf takes what could be a disturbing situation, a strange man, with a foreign language newspaper on his lap, giving her the once over during a winter's train ride in Chicago, and she translates it into an opportunity to bring a new kind of passion to her awaiting mate:
I will deliberately finger parted
thoughts for you,
speak a perilous tongue.
In "Losing Rumi" she takes the sad accident of losing her copy of the poetry of Rumi at the airport for an opportunity to imagine a cleaning woman finding the book and keeping it, and for perhaps the first time in her life having someone say to her, "come, take my hand,/ we'll walk into this garden/ together." And in "High Places," in contrast to the lawyer in "Snake Blood," the same one from "Connecting the Stars," whose dead-eyes and haughty cruelty only bring shame and chagrin to the poet, we find the senior partner, presumably of that same firm, who, in spite of the pains of cancer and chemotherapy finds the time to tell a nervous assistant that she is "doing just fine," a gift that leaves "my throat burning" in sad but somehow redeeming sympathy.
Because Francine Tolf has lived the life of an office worker, a secretary, and a poor graduate student, she can sympathize more genuinely with those who have not had a life of privilege or easy understanding. And her sympathy can extend as readily to a homeless man as for "The Wife of Layman P'Ang." In this poem, an eighth century "enlightened" man, who gave up his riches to live a far simpler life, does not consider how he has or has not bettered his wife's life:
They listen with reverence
to her husband
as she enters the room
to kneel for
the used dishes,
Francine Tolf's poetry has been described by Michael Dennis Browne as "stunningly human." I very much get that assessment, but Tolf is herself more surprised than stunned, sometimes happily, at how little it would take to rescue ourselves from cynicism and despair, if we just would refuse, as she does, to partake in either mind-set. For Tolf there is an almost ineffable yet still firm insistence that the world is better than we know, or better, rather, than we're usually willing to admit. In "Praise of Darkness" she perhaps affirms this feeling best, when she takes darkness as not a threat but an opportunity, which gives us "defter fingers" towards greater intimacy, which is waiting to tell us, if only we would listen: "We were loved/ before stars existed./ We are older than light."
A phrase Michael Dennis Browne also says of Francine Tolf, I would borrow for all three of the poets reviewed here: "One has to have lived a certain time, endured certain experiences, to be able to write with this resonance." Though as a creative writing teacher myself I cannot afford to discount the possible merits of BFA and MFA programs for young, would-be writers, I would argue that the three books I have reviewed are compelling evidence that a genuine sympathy and struggle with the eternal conflicts and ultimate losses of life are quite possibly a more compelling teacher than any professor or workshop. Of course, for young or old, what one does with these experiences is what must finally matter. And Larry D. Thomas, Rebecca Foust and Francine M. Tolf have, to invoke the ultimate non-academic poet, Walt Whitman, definitely "translated the hints," into a fully lived, masterfully rendered and worthwhile poetry.