Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

Scything, by Joanne Lowery

FutureCycle Press, 2010 Paperback, $8.95 30 pages

ISBN: 978-0-9828612-6-4

 

Joanne Lowery’s poems are the epitome of gallows humor—and her chapbook, Scything, is a clever chronicling of Death’s adventures in the world of the mundane. Her poems are an astounding and realistic cross between darkly philosophical and downright funny. As one can see in the table of contents, the book consists of twenty-two poems, none longer than a page, and all but two titled in the same grain: examples include “Death washes windows,” “Death drives an ice cream truck,” and “Death joins a band of guerillas.” Almost all of her poems begin with the title and launch straight into the poem itself, which is a unique and consistent touch throughout the book.

Scything is indeed an apt title for such a book. The back cover reads “[o]ur agrarian forefathers anthropomorphized their fear [of death] into the Grim Reaper, whose swipe symbolized the unexpected moment of life's end,” which is quite appropriate—because despite their humor, the poems in Lowery’s chapbook all seem to be hinting at a larger sense of loss.

For example, the first poem, “As to whether Death sorts his socks,” creates the amusing image of Death going through his sock drawers, unable to match colors, etc, even speculating on the possibility of the Grim Reaper being a “leftover hippie.” At the end of the poem, however, the sock metaphor is tied up neatly with the idea that humans are obsessed with things matching up, like “life and something else,” with the speaker wondering if “he ever ends up with just one, unexplained.” The second poem is similar, talking about Death washing windows, connecting the image of a streak-free window pane with that of a “friend of a friend of a friend” being wiped off of the earth.

While many of the poems in Scything are saved from deep, contemplative melancholy, one piece stands out as unsettling. The poem “Death creates his own website,” is the shortest in the chapbook, and is about a website that everyone is able to access—Death and others can see our friends, family, prom dates, etc, and then “lift his scythe over their special necks / and then he smiles, and we click.” This particular image, while still attempting to harness some of the dark bemusement that permeates the rest of the book, leaves the reader with a disturbing sensation that lingers into the next few pieces.

Lowery’s poems are primarily free verse; however, there are periodic moments of fantastic mid-rhyming, alliteration and great rhythm to her work. The author even gives a brief nod to that founder of free verse, Walt Whitman, when she writes in another poem: “up one row, overlapping another / so no shaggy ridge escapes / so no friend or leaf of bard Walt’s / outlives its time…” In regards to the sound of her work, the poem “At the Farmer’s Market, Death” includes the lines “Good morning, he grins, his robe trailing / the center aisle on his way to scythe / a sample slice of melon,” which roll off the tongue beautifully when said aloud. In contrast to Lowery’s free verse is the poem “Death writes a villanelle,” which, appropriately, is a villanelle—a very structured type of 19th century poetic verse in which the first and third line of the first stanza are rhyming refrains for the rest of the poem, forming a couplet at the end. This poem sticks out amongst the rest not only for its unique form, but also for its concluding lines: “so hard to get a villanelle right / while scything Dylan’s dying light.” The poem is referencing the famous “Do not go gentle into that good night” villanelle by poet Dylan Thomas. In remembering the iconic last line of Thomas’s poem, “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Lowery shows the way Death mocks us all, even poets—which is a sardonic twist in the middle of an often amusing collection.

Scything is truly what the back cover promises: “[a mocking] of the Reaper’s mocking of our mortality.” Each piece causes the reader to sit back and really think about Death going about his every day business, about the fragility of life and about the ubiquity of death, yet each poem additionally casts those dark musings into a humorous light. And honestly—what better way to confront Death’s great scythe than with a derisive chuckle?

 

Kasey Perkins is an English Masters student at Truman State University in Kirksville MO, where she hosts poetry slams. Her poems have been published in Lumina, SLAB, and Monkey Puzzle; she also has forthcoming poetry in 580 Split. She is currently teaching freshman composition at Truman and working on a chapbook.