ALLEN STROUS Reviews
A Good Wall by Katie Hartsock, George Bishop, Linda Tomol Pennisi, Jennifer Kearns
(Toadlily Press, Chappaqua, N.Y., 2014)
A Good Wall is the ninth and latest volume in the Quartet Series from Toadlily Press. The Quartet books have each brought together four short, separate chapbooks from different poets that somehow “converse” with each other, as the press’s editors write—that somehow come together as poetry collections rather than anthologies. How that happens for each book in the series is an ongoing question. In A Good Wall, much of the unity comes from each chapbook having a quirky open-ended quality, each in its own way, that gives the book as a whole the same quality. A Good Wall is in many ways an opened door.
A Good Wall is symmetrical with the work of its first and third sections, by Katie Hartsock and Linda Tomol Pennisi, being poems of prose-like statement—Pennisi’s poems are prose poems outright—while the poems of the second and fourth sections, by George Bishop and Jennifer Kearns, are more traditionally lyrical in their form and workings. Katie Hartsock’s Hotels, Motels, and Extended Stays has its own structure of poems set in the various hotels of the title—those places of rooms trying to be both glamorous and homelike and failing at both, homelike and remaining anonymous—a surreality of only dull dreams, a surreal of the banal. In Hartsock’s poems these are places for the experience of non-experience—for moments of missed connection, departure, loneliness. Hartsock’s accounts of these moments are terse and sober, and still not without humor:
Wake-up calls come as ghosts
whose death wounds, fresh along their flanks,
are little monsters, open enough to show
they are full of nothing inside.
(“The Buried in Sleep and Wine Hotel”)
The problem with waiting for the answer
is the answer
has been waiting longer.
(“The Bump on a Log Hotel”)
The unsettling quality of the juxtaposition of this language, the telling, with what is told is live, lingers.
The second movement of this quartet, George Bishop’s Short Lives and Solitudes, has a second movement’s slowing or pause. The poems examine the not-so-common subject of late middle age.
They deal with the passing of time, and with its accumulation, and, most subtly, with a passing that is accumulation:
yesterday, when love had gone
all the way out I found what
I lost grown together, perfect
combinations casting spells
(“At Oyster Point”).
A short sequence within the group recalls the romance between an older man and woman, a widow, with a rueful intelligence about the quality of a second, sometimes rather secondhand love:
were his now, the ones I had before we decided
to live together. We moved on, thankful for the
extra room we both insisted on—me with secrets
planted far away, and you, my breathtaking
bouquet, so satisfied with our version of spring—
colors of camouflage, lips long gone to seed.
In the background of the poems is the natural world, carefully observed and rendered, of the poet’s Florida. The quiet of these poems of elusive experience is that of a mastery at ease, and at work.
Linda Tomol Pennisi’s Minuscule Boxes in the Bird’s Bright Throat furnishes a scherzo for A Good Wall. The small-town Oak Street background of these poems may be a little uncomfortably close to a Disney Main Street in its scenery and whimsy, but Pennisi’s vision stays authentic. Some of the poems are a vehicle for feminism, such as the allegory-like “Doll Repair Shop,” while convincing young-women consciousnesses shape “Voice Lessons,” “Ralph Edward’s Ballet Studio,” and, most spectacularly, “Ruby-throated.” The longest of the poems in this chapbook, this fable of a girl and a hummingbird “attached to the string that trailed from her mouth” shows up what actual girls face:
She will outgrow it, some told her mother. At fourteen, you never know what’s gonna
come out of a girl’s mouth. Some were concerned about where those whirring wings
might take her. It flies too fast, they’d say. That’s too much power for a girl her age.
And Why didn’t she choose a sturdier bird—a cardinal or a robin, some wondered, then
at least people could see her coming.
But always these poems penetrate the look of Oak Street, reveal a life still part of it, but surpassing and transforming, a surreal intensity here:
and when she stepped back onto Oak, she noticed the air had grown pink-tinged,
that something translucent as skin had settled over the street, had webbed the hands rounding
the clock on the Susquehanna Savings and Loan, had softened the cross jutting from the
steeple of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception.
The poems are visionary of a shifting, hummingbirdlike iridescence behind Oak Street. Pennisi’s work offers the reader delight after the worthwhile bemusements of Hartsock and Bishop.
Jennifer Kearns is an Irish poet who has lived in the U.S., and for me part of the interest of her chapbook The Hungry Gap was in seeing what a different national sensibility would do with language and form. Though her poems are free-verse lyrics, Kearns works with an awareness of received form: form comes in some sense from the outside for her work, though never just mechanically applied. (This contrasts with Bishop’s free-verse lyrics, for example, carefully wrought, but the compulsion of their form seems to grow from, within them.) Kearns’s “The Writing Desk,” for instance, takes the form of a list of plain facts about her mother’s writing desk:
The writing desk is just a desk
A table with four legs
A lid that opens like a wing
Compartments that are neat and smart
Like the segments of a honeycomb
Do you remember on Sundays
Her letters and her thank-you notes
Envelopes filled with her spindly script
Humming along to the radio
The finished sheaf ready for flight
and closes, differently, with plain facts:
The writing desk is just a desk
The industry of her heart failed
It is a table with four legs
And a lid that opens like a wing
The carpentry of “The Writing Desk” becomes more, other than carpentry. Kearns’s poems are some of the most accessible in A Good Wall, often with themes of the distance between a couple, the decision to have or not have children, and a number of poems dealing with a mother’s death. They are also accessible with a familiar but rare and classic force and clarity of image:
Under the big, old moon of your implacable death
You are dead and the great, bright hole of you
Gleams down over everything we might choose to do
This definitive quality along with the conscious formalness of the poems makes for a recurring feel of closure. But the last poem in Kearns’s chapbook, the last poem in A Good Wall, opens up again;
“The Time and Place for Everything” gives us an ironic vision of heaven, maybe happening in one of Hartsock’s hotels, unbelievable and still likely believed in, a fantasy we live by:
Won’t it be wonderful once we arrive
And move from the crowded vestibule
Into the ease of the gallery
Isn’t this the grandest party we’ve ever seen
On a night dipped in silver
And everyone we’ve ever lost or missed
Is gathered and there is nothing more to do
So the music of A Good Wall will not quite resolve or conclude, and this too is satisfying. The book’s unity does not result in a stated proposition, no more than music does. Or, like music, more than that, as music does.
Allen Strous is the author of Tired, The Backwaters Press, and one of the authors of The Fifth Voice, Toadlily Press.