Rough Cradle, Betsy Sholl (80pp, $15.95, Alice James Books)
Winter Tenor, Kevin Goodan
(48pp, $15.95, Alice James Books)
Betsy Scholl's poems are
visual and fast-moving, the whole book shot through with vivid imagery. The
poems often dazzle - often leave you wondering what they were about, how they
got you to where you are.
They're not poems which develop in straight lines. One characteristic of how these poems work is that what
they tell you about and where they're going is not where they start.
'In-flight' takes us on an aeroplane
from our lives
contents of our bags
airport x-ray exposed
as gray filmy
shapes, ghosts of things
we thought we
couldn't do without.
and straight into a changed reality via an airline magazine's photographs of
another culture - where we're abandoned, even if we are still buckling our
seatbelts. 'In What Furnace' is about a memory of the writer's horse - if the
poem can be said to be 'about' where it gets to. On the way, it's also been
'about' her daughter, William Blake, her daughter's horse ... and somewhere
along the way I was so dazzled by the gorgeousness of the writing I lost the
links between them. Her 'own first horse' isn't just gone, but
gone now, as
so much is gone, as coal sheen
goes to ash
flake, to clinker of black lace,
still glowing in night-sweat dreams
When the horse returns to the poem, I'm still entangled in that black lace.
Slippage happens on a larger scale in the title poem. The first section
wonderfully evokes driving a small boat with an outboard
...when we hit the inlet
back so fast our own wake almost swamped us
down into water's rough cradle.
The second section of the poem tells of weeks of jury duty - and again what
took place is so well evoked; the writer heard
all the old frauds, turn into syrupy sludge,
engine voice with its futile cough and sob.
How this second section relates to the first (that 'engine voice' is a clever
surface link) and then to the third, which is a re-telling of Jonah's story,
exercised three us over a long lunch until we eventually came to see the poem
as focusing on talk and judgement - rather on the sea, which had so
completely engaged us in the opening section.
Rough Cradle, like all Alice James Books, is beautifully
produced. Kevin Goodan's more recent Winter Tenor is even more so, still elegantly typeset but now
with cover flaps too. Page design is important to this book: short pieces sit
well on the page (only one runs over) and there's no ambiguity about which
pieces are lineated and which are prose poems. This is a present tense /
present moment collection written out of the experience of farm work. No poem
is titled: the reader too passes from one moment to the next, not knowing
what is to come. Several pieces break off at the end. (There is a contents
list though, naming first lines.) I'll quote one of the shortest poems in
full, to give a flavour of the writing:
came lambs stillborn
cawing from pine
hazarding every breath shadows
balance fled a lantern
light is lost
the stamping ewes
direction overwhelmed bodies
This is typical of the impressionistic, condensed and highly visual writing.
The cover quotes the poem which opens 'White days, a passion for winter birds
/ Cached in every elm, each goat / With its bell in the pasture / As wind
tolls through the landscape.' We are in that moment with the writer.
But the poem I've quoted above is also typical in its focus on death, whether
it's bleak weather or not. In the poem that opens 'The first sturdy bee
begins', it may be 'March seventy degrees', and four lambs are born; even so
And one is in
the recycling bin
last hard cold spell.
A ewe is 'kicked to death by mares'; there are 'drying tufts / of a rabbit
chosen by a hawk'; a 'bloating heifer' is carted 'To the bone-pit by the
river'; there is 'Pigeon blood drying on the shit-spreader'. And so many
lines of the lineated pieces seem to have a falling cadence.
In the prose poem 'I rise to sound of labour...' he says 'There are things I
remember that brought me here, things I wanted to learn' but Kevin Goodan's
experience of farming is thoroughly wintry, one of death and blood - even in
poems written in summer. So much so, that between readings I turned to other
American farmer-poets (Bob Arnold, Wendell Berry) to redress the balance. And
that drew my attention to how solitary is the life that Kevin Goodan
describes - though he does, in 'Toward night...', 'gaze into the kitchen of the
next farmhouse and watch the man with a bad leg hobble from sink to table and
feed his mother with a spoon'.
The winter of the book is essentially the writer's own entrapment in winter,
'...the ricket fence / That keeps this heart from the others.' (That word
'ricket' is working hard.) A brief reference to 'you with your miscarriage'
in 'Even so, what hardships are bred' may provide a context for the tenor of
the book, one whose mood is sustained with remarkable consistency across all
© Jane Routh