Phebe Davidson


A Review of Adcock, Meek, Kennedy and Blakely

          A question worth asking a new book of poetry is whether it contains
          a poem so good that the reader is compelled to copy and keep it.
                              — Carol Peters, “A Poem Worth Keeping”

Slantwise by Betty Adcock. LSU Press. 83 pages. $16.95 paper.
$45.00 cloth. (L.E. Philabaum Award)

Biogeography by Sandra Meek. Tupelo Press, 2008. 83 pages.
$16.95 (The Dorset Prize)

A Witch’s Dictionary by Sarah Kennedy. Elixir Press, 2008. 66
pages. $16.00.

Cities of Flesh and the Dead by Diann Blakely. Elixir Press, 2008.
93 pages. $17.00.

Carol Peters is right, of course. A book without at least one poem
the reader just has to hang onto is likely to be a disappointment,
however well the whole collection might accumulate. We readers of
poetry are both subjective and self-indulgent; we read what we do
because the alternative (not reading it) would be an unspeakable
waste of time. In the best books, each poem seeks its own truth
and each new poem, if it’s a good one, holds a shift in nuance, a
different choreography moving lines down and across the page, an
idiom, a moment captured with startling brilliance or an unlookedfor
resonance that stays in the mind…any and all of these make a
memorable reading experience. In these four books, there is no lack
of keepers; they abound. The challenge, among so many fine
poems, is to settle on one from each volume to serve as the
reminder of how strong each book is, and why.


Slantwise, Betty Adcock’s first collection from LSU since the 2001
Intervale: New and Selected Poems, is memorable not only for the
inimitable Adcock flavor of the natural world, but for an allusive
teasing that sends readers back to Emily Dickinson, both for truths
told slant and for that “certain slant of light” still found “on winter
afternoons.” With consummate skill and an admirable air of
serenity, Adcock couples the terrible ravages of time and events
with a profound reverence for the beauty of life in this world. With
Dickinson, she shares a deep respect for ordinary vocabulary and
uses it to advantage.

As Slantwise moves through its opening poem,

          One needle from a longleaf pine
          left over from logging, one
          needle falling through green
          shade, through warp and shimmer of
          September sometimes

                              end over end will
          turn as if marking the passing
          air with form…

                              (“Little Text”)

the reader is caught in a kind of suspension as the poet observes,
speculates, and perhaps most importantly exists in that moment. The
unexpected displacement of a line—“end over end will”—becomes
a catching of the breath as the poem becomes an image hinting of art
and its speculative beginnings, finally, like the needle of the long leaf
pine, loosed in time. As for the artist, Adcock tells us plainly

          I may have come for just this,
          so long gone I can’t remember…

                              (“Little Text”)

The truths treated lovingly in this book include the passage of geological
time, past lives imagined and remembered, and a personal
family richly loved. With Adcock, readers see a carnival worker,

                              …bare-chested, tanned
          and gleaming in the southern September night,
          a kind of summer in the lights that played
          across him as he pulled levers set to arm
          the bright contraption with speed and plunge,
          with whirl and rise.


Though Adcock’s poems speak powerfully of (and to) the people
and places still loved, some of the most moving moments in the
book center on what is being lost even as these poems find their
way to the page. One poem in particular captures the immediacy of
loss that will become legend, reminding us that in time the legend
will be lost as well. When the shuttle Columbia broke up, bits of
the astronauts themselves fell on East Texas,

          …the old arc snapped, covenant entirely
          broken, our ships no more than silver needles
          tying the boundless haystacks of the stars.


Choosing only one poem from this bounty, I opt for the wry
metaphor of “Rare,” a lament for “ledvenia texana…found only
in the southeast corner of San Augustine County Texas.” My reason
is simple: the last line will not leave me alone.

          endangered, useless, almost too low to see,
          it’s visible only on close inspection
          of the common ground, is found in this one archival
          soil, nowhere else on earth. Like poetry,
          it thrives in contradiction,
          one of the small acute survivals.


Biogeography, Sandra Meek’s Dorset Prize winner, is also preoccupied
with time’s passing, the impact of event, and (of particular
importance to the poet) the possibility of meaning. Because the
word “biogeography” denotes the study of the distribution of liv-
ing things, it is no surprise that the poems take as their subject life
in the natural world, or that the place of humanity in the planet’s
biogeography is a key concern. Yet surprise enlivens these poems.
Meek starts with the premise that “mile zero” is “satellite dish /
starless and webbed” and that luck is what we have to go on. She
offers us a fierce conflagration:

                              lapping up trees
          as if all would be made visible
          in our end. Before mushrooms, small
          gray ears, bloomed in the ash, something to gather
          before night’s lit with the static
          of remote fires and the one
          unblinking star pacing the sky
          catching our voices, casting them down.


Surprises here include the echo of a Biblical star in the eavesdropping
satellite’s “unblinking” face, the irony of our own voices cast
down from on high, and the “small / gray ears” that we hurry to
gather. Gray food indeed, in a ruined landscape that still manages
to send up living things, to (with luck) support more life. A river
becomes a sort of salvation:

          Breathe in, and you are that clarity
          cradled before word, before the fracture
          between rainforest and jungle…

                              (“Courantijn River”)

Not content with an easy stance, Meek reminds us there is more to

          Continental drift, the earth as steeled plates
          crashing together—however you read
          the history of the planet, it all scopes down
          to points of ash, small fires dotting a forest village
          to keep the bush down.

She asks:

                              Listen: do you hear the teeth
          approaching, do you trust the light, how it eats equally into
          shadow and green? Have you noticed? The body without air goes blue,
          letting in the sky.

                              (“Courantijn River”)

Images that suggest terrible threat simultaneously with a kind of
blue freedom are typical of Meek’s vision. There is a balance here,
discomfiting and ambiguous, but undeniable. As Meek makes clear,
in the world we know,

          doesn’t fade. Nothing
          doesn’t go hungry and unanswered

          into night haunted by a sun which may or
          may not be signaling
          its own dying in that flawed

          and welcomed light.

                              (“Mapping the Drift”)

Meek assures her readers “the story of beginnings is always / God
as a ray of light” and that the flight of crows is “a black thread
sewn / to its own unraveling. (“Departing Flight”). What she
delivers is a balance in language that is all but incandescent.
Biogeography is an extraordinary achievement. These poems are
weighted with love of world and word, full of incipient loss that
haunts even when the images fade. Gratefully, I find myself returning
to “Anniversary,” which tells me that “the body’s / adrift in
when, saturated with since,” and that a November image of river
and field is, metaphysically and metaphorically, the perfect extension
of the human condition:

          …One more failed surrender
          an oak leaf’s clawed hand pinwheels
          along the current, nothing but gravity
          bearing it down.


Cities of Flesh and the Dead, by Diann Blakely, is memorable, at
least in part, for her breadth of technical mastery. She writes
remarkable dramatic monologues, and from drastically different
points of view. Her sonnets are living proof to the enduring
strength and flexibility of the form, and her movie poems are
touchstones of cinematic impact. There is pathos here, and exuberance,
but nothing that unfolds as an easy read. At 93 pages the
book is a hefty compendium of challenging, absorbing work.
Beginning with the movies, Blakely uses Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
as a touchstone for her generation—

          A woman stares, wild-eyed from the terror known only when death
                              That black-winged angel,
          Appears without warning, without any time for prayers, rescue
                              Or bargains…

And for that generation’s urgent need:

          For blessing, as when we let water sluice its warm passage down
                              Our flesh at the end
          Of a day that’s pummeled us into exhaustion and blankness,
                              When we drop our hands

          To unbutton a shirt, pull on the harsh teeth of a zipper,
                              Look in someone’s eyes
          And pray love me, treasure my body, don’t ever let me die.

                              (“Bad Blood”)

With deft skill, Blakely weaves popular culture, gender issues, family
and personal history into a somber tapestry. The dramatic
monologue “The Last Violet” speaks for one Mary Jane Kelly,
whose girlhood “in neighborhoods more posh than Whitechapel”
did nothing to save her from a life that would grow progressively
more oppressive and that would end at the hands of Jack the
Ripper in 1888. Kelly’s voice explains:

          That courtship teaches whoring’s mortal shame
          But true: young girls trade kisses for bouquets,
          Let sweaty hands roam their breasts in return
          For tuppence frills and bowls…

and who remembers for her last lover an image

          Of Jesus, the red sword-gash in his side,
          Those slender, near-girly legs ankle-crossed
          Below blood mingled with pale curls and thorns.

                              (“The Last Violet”)

There are poems about family (“Family Battles”) and friendships,
about Lorca, his Spain, St. Theresa (“Blood Oranges”). The sonnets—
particularly the sonnets for Tina, are simply too good not to
reread countless times. Yet if I am to keep only one poem to send
me back again to this book, it is the poignant “Afterwords,” written
in memory of poet William Matthews. The writing is a clear
demonstration of art’s power and necessity in the face of loss.
Beginning with a reference to the last postcard from her friend, the
poet writes at the end:

          My kitchen’s perfumed with small reddish shards
          Of puppy chow and now the gluey smell
          of tear-blurred mail. “The hour of the wolf,
          Said forebears after learning to encircle
          Their villages with walls: the dusk-lit gulf
          Where housepet and killer become the same —
          O arteries o howl o terminus—
          As flowers and teeth, or flesh and its shade.


A Witch’s Dictionary, Sarah Kennedy’s fifth book of poems, is
fueled by unrelenting fury at the outrages of history and humanity.
There is, admittedly, understanding and regret that we are not better
than we are, but it is the rage that brings life to this collection.
Living in the same world with the rest of us, Kennedy takes note of
horrors from thumbscrews to squassation, from Aberdeen in 1564
to Salem’s touristy present. The torrent of her language sweeps
readers relentlessly from A to X-Y-Z, from prologue to epilogue.
Amen and without mercy.

The strategy is clear: Divide the alphabet in half; use the letters of
the alphabet in the manner of a primer, an educational tool to sink
into the waiting mind some crucial information that might otherwise
be lost. Between the two halves, insert an Interlude of poems
that treat events, emotions, moods, in a reassuringly present way.
Keep light the tone of pro- and epilogue. Take full advantage of
deep research, political passion—even scholarly apparatus. That
Kennedy achieves this with aplomb and high intelligence is a wonderful
thing for contemporary poetry.

Consider, for instance, the apparent ease with which the prologue
introduces the Lady of the Dead, purchased “from the Salem witch
shop one Hallowe’en:”

          One little hand raised in benediction—
          no—these days it may be accusation.

                              (“The Lady of the Dead”)

With this modern-day poppet, this “polymer madonna” complete
with painted rosary, Kennedy opens the door to the nightmares of
our time and to histories that have been made too nearly invisible.
We move directly to the letter A, where the connections between
the present and the past, even the relatively hidden past that is
rarely discussed, are made inescapably clear.

          Aberdeen, Scotland, 1596.
          Alexander Thomson drops dead, Andrew
          Webster falls ill with ague. Andrew
          Mann, an old conjurer himself,
          turns penitent and is dubbed witchfinder

                              “A Witch’s Dictionary (A)1”

These stark lines are followed by notes, among them

          See Apple and its role in casting spells.

          See Ashtaroth, reduced to a minor
          male demon (with bad breath) from the former
          (feminine) Astarte.

          See Anti-Christ (great beast who looks a lot
          like your local church-goer or crusader)

The superscript one (1) of the title points to the footnote: “See also

In three short pages, the poet has created a fierce momentum.
Whether we are looking at “Beelzebub: Prince of the Devils” (“A
Witch’s Dictionary (B)”), “Inquisition (what else?) (“A Witch’s
Dictionary (I)”), or the “weighted strappado” that appears under
torture (“A Witch’s Dictionary (T)”), the pace never slackens. The
bits of narrative and commentary that Kennedy allows herself are
riveting both for their bald starkness and the horrific nature of
what is being told. A canny thinker, Kennedy introduces the letters
of The Witch’s Alphabet with epilogues that are instructive and

          We are not much further forward now heresy has turned into
          political difference, and man has taken from the Devil the power
          that the Devil took from God.

                              Barbara Rosen, Witchcraft in England: 1558–1618. 1969

          It’s so inspirational to see your courage, as well as to see the great
          works of our Lord in your heart.

                              George W. Bush, Nashville Tennessee, 10 February 2003

          We’re on an international manhunt for those who would do harm to
          America, or for anybody else who loves freedom.

                              George W. Bush, Roswell, New Mexico, 2 February 2004

                              (“A Witch’s Dictionary (X-Y-Z)”)

To my near-surprise, the poem that I will carry with me as testament
to this remarkable volume is “Mother’s Day, 2003, Flying
Westward,” which opens Interlude. I am touched by the sympathy
with Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,” and I feel
myself at one with the mother who finds herself, unready, flying

                              I’d like to turn, go back, fly
          again into Rome where pace flags
          brighten the windowsills. But it’s too late.

          I’ve had my holiday, the family
          expects its mother home, not running

          around in European churches,
          praying God protect the world from us.

I count myself lucky to number these books among my reading.
Betty Adcock, Sandra Meek, Diann Blakely, Sarah Kennedy—these
are names to remember. I cannot claim in good faith that the
poems I have chosen are their best poems for anyone but me. They
fit my sense of what is best in poetry. They draw me back into the
larger body of work. They are portals that fit my particular frame.
Having taken up the challenge of finding them, I now pass that
challenge to other readers. Keepers flourish in these books, waiting
for you to find your own best fit.