Two of my poems were published in a new anthology of Maine poetry of witness from Littoral Books: Enough! Poems of Resistance and Protest. The collection also includes several photographs of justice-seekers in Portland, ME and poems from writers I admire such as: Sharif Elmusa, Annaliese Jakimides, & Donna Loring.
Jericho Brown, The New Testament
Poetry, 2014, Copper Canyon Press
Jericho Brown’s The New Testament reshapes the world with fresh syntax and magic. The collection transforms received views of religion, race, gender, identity, politics, and language itself, and brings new life to traditional forms like the ghazal, iambic pentameter, and the blues. Concepts of “brother,” “black,” “solider,” “angel,” “prison,” “hotel,” all become intertwined and remixed, and the outcome is a new poetic scripture. Death is confronted over and over in these poems, and death is transfigured into new life.
There’s a tenderness throughout Testament, a consideration for how it feels to be a child, paralleled with a sometimes desolate world, and an acknowledgment of ones ancestors and the dead, “My grandmother is dead she lives with me.”
One of the most striking elements of Testament is its vulnerability—the showing of loneliness and the need to be loved, “Why is it so hard to make friends here”—the sharing of such feelings that all of us experience brings an intimacy and universality to these poems.
The lines in Testament are deceptively simple. Efficiency at crafting and ending a poetic line is a standout of Brown’s poems. It’s as if each line tells the whole story. Through this style, a unique sense of time is created in the book. The reader is allowed the freedom to savor the music at our own pace—each line can be mused on slowly, or every poem in the collection can be read as an interwoven part of a whole. Both ways allow us to be transported, meditate, escape, and be redeemed by the gifts of song language and story that we seek in poetry.
In the opening piece, “Colosseum,” the narrator says,
I cannot locate the origin Of slaughter, but I know How my own feels, that I live with it And sometimes use it To get the living done, Because I am what gladiators call A man in love—love Being any reminder we survived.
The concept that love is the reason we’re not dead stays with me. Brown reminds us that love is the reason to be alive, and love is reminder that we are alive. Being able to love who we want is a basic human, spiritual need and a right for life on this planet. Paradoxically, these poems often feature a narrator who is pressured to hide his love of men from people like neighbors and family because of prejudice that remains too prevalent in the 21st century.
“The Interrogation” sets the tone for motifs that are woven throughout Testament—incarceration, the child self, death, visibility, invisibility, black, love, brother, questioning. Parts I and II of the poem are excerpted below:
I. WHERE In that world, I was a black man. Now, the bridge burns and I Am as absent as what fire Leaves behind. I thought we ran To win the race. My children swear We ran to end it. I’d show them The starting point, but no sky here Allows for rain. The water infects Us, and every day, the air darkens… The air, the only black thing Of concern— Who cares what color I was? II. CROSS-EXAMINATION Do you mean love? Certainly a way of loving. Did it hurt? When doesn’t it? We’ll ask the questions. Did it hurt? When death enters a child’s room, The child feels a draft. So you chose for it to hurt. I chose my brother over my desire To be invisible. We thought your brother was dead… He is. And his death made you Visible? You only see me When I carry a man on my back. But you arrived alone. That wasn’t me. That was the man who lost My brother.
Here we are given a dreamy q&a session, which is its own form, and an image of a narrator who must be martyred like the burning sky in order to be seen.
There is a threaded metaphor within Testament of an incarcerated brother and an incarcerated self, and perhaps an incarceration of an entire people. Because the brother is condemned through circumstances of oppression, the narrator himself feels condemned by association, guilt, love, or martyrdom, and the wish to save and love his “brother”—his kin and lover. The narrator thus becomes the accused, the condemned, and the guilty by association, whether in reality or through empathy. This echoes Whitman, “Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.”
Etheridge Knight’s prison poems come to mind while reading Testament, and Brown references infusing Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, Terrance Hayes, and popular culture into this collection as well.
In addition to forced incarceration, Brown addresses the constant presence of war in our lives,
NEWS It’s like a love for me, this Love of language, and we are Men at war, says the news. No matter how long we speak English, English means not To count us or to count us Darkly, but I know what I want and so does channel 4. They give it to me, one heap After another: soldiers who, Following another battle, shed, Sweat, and spit like fountains.
Whether it’s an actual war being broadcast on the news, wrestling with using the language of colonizers, paying taxes that go towards killing others, finding oneself in impoverished circumstances that push us towards harm, or fighting to love who we want, it’s as if we must be soldiers or healers in order to live in this world. Testament gives us a wish to heal the brokenness through love, which is “reminder we survived.”
The New Testament reflects an American society that continues to recast unjust bias towards those who don’t fit into a white, straight, male homogenous mold, a world that poisons nature itself, and in turn poisons people:
“We saw police pull sharks out of the water just to watch them not breathe”
Such lines allow us to reflect on the wastefulness, the confusion, the senseless violence of present day America, where authority can be cruel just for the sake of cruelness, and the sacred is condemned like a messiah.
There’s a fragmentary element to Brown’s poems, broken up pieces of memory, reality so harsh that we wonder if it’s even real, and lines that stand on their own, yet each line moves easily into the next, each poem resonates off the others. This feels cyclical and renewing. Cohesiveness is made from the fragments. The reader is invited into a reclaiming, where the question is asked, who cares who I love, as long as I love in a world gone wrong?
The New Testament is affirming and brave in giving us poems where narrators choose to embrace their true selves—their color, “Blackness as a way”, their sexuality, “So what if I love him / The one they call bad, / The one they call black”—over their “Wish to be invisible.”
The sun rose today, and
The sun went down
Over the trees beyond the river;
No crashing thunder
Nor jagged lightning
Flashed my forty-four years across
The heavens. I am here.
I am alone. With the Indianapolis / News
Sitting, under this indiana sky
I lean against a gravestone and feel
The warm wine on my tongue.
My eyes move along the corridors
Of the stars, searching
For a sign, for a certainty
As definite as the cold concrete
Pressing against my back.
Still the stars mock
Me and the moon is my judge.
But only the moon.
‘Cause I ain’t screwed no thumbs
Nor dropped no bombs—
Tho my name is naughty to the ears of some
And I ain’t revealed the secrets of my brothers
Tho my balls’ve / been pinched
And my back’s / been / scarred—
And I ain’t never stopped loving no / one
O I never stopped loving no / one
April 19, 1975
This poem echoes in my head as a daily mantra, particularly the last stanza, in which Knight gives us two of the most beautiful poetic lines I know of:
And I ain’t never stopped loving no / one
O I never stopped loving no / one
These lines bring strength to my heart and remind me of my dignity. When I recall the lyric phrase, “I never stopped loving no / one” I think how that’s true for me–and gain a sense of reclaiming. Because if we can say that much for ourselves, maybe there’s hope for the world.
To never stop loving, to never cast anyone aside—is a revolutionary act. A society that teaches it’s ok to put ourselves above others—other socioeconomic groups, other races, other countries, other sexualities, other genders—is out of skew. So few of us receive unconditional love, yet it’s something all of us need. To forsake anyone is to forsake ourselves.
The speaker in this poem turns the other cheek. He’s saying he’s been beaten before, he’s been molested—but he refuses to cast such hatred and violence against another. He will not dishonor his brother, torture people, or drop bombs. He chooses love.
I admire the tightness and music of Knight’s lines, and the efficiency of his syntax. “Cause I ain’t screwed no thumbs” brings a visceral image of torture and a declaration against such brutality, in just six syllables. Subtle, sensual images like “The warm wine on my tongue” let us anchor ourselves in the slightly buzzed euphoria & lonesome soul searching of the narrator.
This poem begins with a primordial ceremony—the rising and setting of the sun, which ushers in all births and deaths each day. Reverence for the solar system is established, yet the speaker says there is nothing especially striking about this day–the anniversary of his birth. He has humbled himself to his place in the universe–his role in the “the corridors of the stars.” And he acknowledges the dead and eternity by celebrating his birth in a graveyard. Though lonesome under the stars, it’s consoling that the moon cannot judge him too harshly because he’s never turned to the wrongness of dropping bombs or ratting out a friend. He “never stopped loving no / one.” The lines sing.
The pause indicated by “/” after “no” accentuates the word “one,” and brings to mind oneness. I think it is the egolessness that comes to mind from “O I never stopped loving no / one”– the oneness, a power invoked by continuing to love everyone in our lives no matter what despair and torture the world faces us with—that makes the last stanza of this poem such a powerful mantra.
Leonore Hildebrandt grew up in Germany and teaches writing at the University of Maine. Living “off the grid” in Harrington, Maine, she is a member of the Flatbay Collective and serves as an editor for the Beloit Poetry Journal. Her poetry has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, the Beloit Poetry Journal, the Poetry Salzburg Review, and the Quercus Review, and Cabildo Quarterly, among others.
I have always done things the hard way––
cutting through razor wire, sitting in protest
until the cops yanked us by the hair.
After turning down the millionaire,
I boiled the baby’s diapers on the wood stove––
but in summer I danced into the pale light of morning.
There were men, there were women––
mostly I lived more fiercely than that,
my head full of road-songs, the secret of seeds,
Masters of War. Once I climbed an oak tree
I had planted thirty years before. The leaves,
like orange hands, pulled me high and higher.
When I went fasting in the woods,
the hours would open their mouths wider,
the verge of the pond carried on endlessly.
I know of padded cells and stifling nightmares.
But age is ageless. So rock me––like glass,
we are sharp, molten, shattered, redone.
It’s like the death penalty––
once you have handed it down,
then do it, already. Don’t let it drag on.
Here, Leonore is interviewed by Lisa Panepinto.
Lisa: I’m excited that you have a poetry collection coming out soon, The Next Unknown. Can you give us a preview into the book?
Leonore: In 2001, I began writing poetry under the tutelage of Constance Hunting. The Next Unknown gathers poems up to 2010 when the manuscript was accepted for publication by Pecan Grove Press. Many of the poems are inspired by my experience as a traveler––between the German and English language, between city and country, between my joy over life on the earth and sorrow about its decline. My hope is that the poems are imaginative, that they speak through specific images while evoking questions about larger themes––nature and power, art and knowledge.
Lisa: What are some other projects you’re currently working on?
Leonore: I am moving toward a second book-length collection. As far as I can tell, this one will have fewer autobiographical references and more of an eco-feminist feel. I don’t really like using this term; it implies a narrow, didactic agenda, which is not what I am interested in when I write poems. But I do feel passionate as a woman about a less exploitative relationship with all life-forms, and this passion finds expression in the poetry.
For last summer’s Belfast Poetry Festival, I teamed up with the painter Heidi Daub. We presented The Shelter, a series of poems with corresponding landscape paintings. Heidi and I were surprised by the intimacy inherent in the work, and we are hoping to keep this collaboration alive. We will be performing The Shelter at the University of Maine at Machias (probably in the fall of 2014) and are looking into publication.
More recently, I have written a few new songs, and my pianist/writer/friend Brian Stewart and I are working on these and some of his new material. Also, inspired by my grandson’s arrival, I just recorded a CD of German children’s songs. As my 93 year old mother put it: “Germany has made many mistakes, but the folk songs it has produced over the past centuries are something truly beautiful.” It felt great to remember this lovely tradition.
Lisa: Your poems portray both the destruction of the environment and the denigration of women. Do you see these themes as linked?
Leonore: Common ideas about the affinities between “Nature” and “Woman” have in the past too often resulted in disrespect for both, which is convenient for those looking to justify domination and abuse. I would be careful of a classification of man as perpetrator and woman/nature as victim, because it ends up stressing difference in our perception of man versus woman. Still, a patriarchal value system tends to take for granted a sense of entitlement to take, and take, and take. It is my hope that a more “feminine” age is in the making, one in which both men and women value caring more than controlling.
Many writers have spoken to that shift. Currently I am teaching a course in American Women’s Literature. Among the stories we are reading is “A White Heron” (1886) by Sarah Orne Jewett, in which a boy demonstrates his passion for birds by shooting and stuffing them. This sets in motion the conflict for the young heroine: should she be loyal to him or the great bird?
In “Annunciation” (1935) by Meridel Le Sueur, a woman in dire poverty becomes pregnant, and in spite of her partner’s wishes, she goes through with the pregnancy. She contemplates a pear tree growing behind the dismal boarding house: “The leaves are the lips of the tree speaking in the wind, or they move like many tongues. The fruit of the tree has been a round speech, speaking in full tongue […], hanging in ripe body…“ This sense of ripening and fullness coming out of the depression era is remarkable.
By asserting themselves as women, the protagonists of these stories come to notice also the integrity and beauty of other species. Our speech can be “in full tongue” even when writing poems of witness.
Lisa: You live off-the-grid on the coast of Maine, where you have raised a family. It seems to me your poetry expresses a counterculture mentality of giving up capitalist concerns in exchange for an allegiance with the earth. Does this connection seem accurate?
Leonore: My choices in lifestyle have tended toward the simple, resourceful, and natural––and I am glad that you find these values in my poetry.
Off-the-grid requires a degree of self-sufficiency. My husband and I get electricity and part of our heat from the sun. We grow our own fruit and vegetables. We thin the forest to obtain firewood. We buy mostly used clothes. And so on. The willingness to pay attention to one’s small actions lives on in our children. While our daughters now have moved to urban areas, they are, each in her own way, connected to nature and committed to its protection. They have chosen to work in a way that does not feel alienated.
Striving for a gentler environmental footprint is not hard for me. The earth is generous, and I feel refreshed while working on the land. Harder than these lifestyle choices, I find, is to change my mind, to think about the value of money, power, and entitlement outside of the prevailing paradigms. For example, does less consumerism make for a shrinking economy which means more global poverty––or not necessarily? In spite of the justified rhetoric against the richest 1%, should we hope that wealthy people will help implement a more egalitarian system, also in regard to non-human life?
Poetry is a place where I can imagine “what if.” I can circle around things that puzzle me, try out different voices and positions. If I had a plan, if I called myself a Buddhist, or a Marxist, or a Naturalist, I may not be driven to write poems.
Lisa: Can you discuss the importance of place in your writing?
Leonore: Recently I wrote a longer poem inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s invention of geodesic domes. It’s called “Where You Happen to Be,” and it starts with a quote by Fuller: “The most important thing to teach your children is that the sun does not rise and set. It is the Earth that revolves around the sun. Then teach them the concepts of North, South, East and West, and that they relate to where they happen to be on the planet’s surface at that time. Everything else will follow.” In a few words, Fuller connects the larger space (and our orientation in it) with our individual presence. Everything else will follow––in my poem follow impressions of hiking in the Southwest, interwoven with geometric concepts and natural shapes. Place is not merely a backdrop––along with time, it makes for our experience, offers a perspective, molds our voices. The challenge for the writer of poetry is to choose significant and fresh images as a stand-in for all that space so that a reader, too, may imagine a specific place where we happen to be.
Lisa: Your poems feel highly lyrical, chant-like and are often referential of song. Could you talk about music in relation to your writing?
Leonore: I came to poetry from songwriting, or perhaps I should say, poetry found me while I worked on lyrics. Since the early 1990s, I have been playing music with other songwriters, and we perform mostly our own songs. During practice and musical performance, one incessantly repeats the same material while trying to improve its presentation. I think this shaped my critical sensibility. If I want to keep enjoy singing the lines, they have to roll off the tongue.
Song lyrics may be simpler than poetry, especially if they are meant for performance. The music will add interest. But to be singable, they must be smooth. No harsh clusters of consonants. Repetition of sound, be it full rhyme or near-rhyme. Rhythm. You see, song lyrics compare well to poetry in fixed form, like the balled. One counts the meter, the number of lines. Free-verse poetry offers more formal freedom, which I enjoy. And still, I always read poems in progress out loud, listening for an underlying pulse over which flow the words’ cadences.
Lisa: Who are some of your literary influences?
Leonore: Writers whose work I keep coming back to include: Bertolt Brecht, Rilke, Goethe. Pablo Neruda, Garcia Marquez. Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson.
As a member of the editorial board of the Beloit Poetry Journal, I regularly read a selection of new submissions. I am very grateful for the opportunity to see what my peers are doing. Additionally, reading and discussing these poems with a group of seasoned editors often brings the work more fully alive for me.
Most immediately and constructively I am engaged with the work-in-progress of my fellow writers in the Flat Bay Collective: Robert Froese, Tony Brinkley, Dick Miles.
Lisa: Who are you currently reading and what are you currently listening to?
Leonore: A recent post to The New Yorker is titled: “Is the News Replacing Literature?” I was taken aback––indeed, for me that may be increasingly true. I browse online content from NPR, the New York Times, and Deutsche Welle. I enjoy political satire, like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. I find that I learn things from The Atlantic, perhaps because it caters to a younger, more urban audience. I am just about addicted to the New York Review of Books which I read cover to cover.
Thankfully I am teaching American Women’s Literature! Presently we are reading literature from the turn of the century, an exiting time in women’s history, which produced many great writers, among them Kate Chopin, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Austin, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton.
In music, I respond to syncopation, both in world music and jazz. A few favorite artists in no particular order: Salif Keita (Mali), Manu Dibango (Cameroon), Manu Chao (France/Spain), Cesaria Evora (Cape Verde), Gigi (Ethiopia), Ali Farka Touré (Mali), Baaba Maal (Senegal), Toumani Diabaté (Mali), Souad Massi (Algeria/France).
I grew up in Germany with folk music and the composers from the classical era: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, Boccherini… This heritage still nourishes me and I turn to it at certain times with much appreciation.
In terms of films, here are a few recommendations for documentaries I recently saw: A Place at the Table (on hunger in the USA). The House I Live in (on the war on drugs). Last Call at the Oasis (on the global water crisis). Inside Job (on the financial crisis of 2008) and Food,Inc (on industrial food production.)
Lisa: Your poems often juxtapose the beauty of nature and fragility of life with war’s shadow. Do you see nurturing the earth as a means to protest war and violence?
Leonore: Poetry as protest––this is a powerful legacy, but I’m not sure I can claim that for my own work. But like everyone, I write from my place in history. My father was an officer in WWII, he spent five years as a POW in the Soviet Union and returned physically frail. My mother’s energies were at times more focused on him than on the children. But, to stay with your metaphor, war’s shadow also may cast the light in sharp relief. In their remaining years together, my parents strove for mindfulness and peace, at least in the family. Perhaps that primed me to become a young political rebel: I wanted to make things right. I joined the anti-nuclear protests that swept through Europe in the 1970/80s. We would “occupy” the construction sites for nuclear waste and power plants. (This movement led to the foundation of Germany’s Green Party.) During the course of it, my friends and I started a commune and learned about gardening and beekeeping…
The earth nurtures us, not vice versa. We may try to limit the harm we do. It is my hope that when we open ourselves and pay attention to the forces of life, to the land, the clouds, all that beauty, we will be able to do less harm. Of course, there is violence in nature as one thing feeds on another, but no mean-spirited revenge, no contemplated or organized destruction. Too long during our history, we have convinced ourselves that we are above nature, entitled to use and rule over it, just as leaders convince themselves that it is okay to dominate and exploit people. This attitude is changing, thankfully.
Lisa: Can you talk about your involvement with the Flat Bay Collective and being part of a community of artists in rural Maine?
Leonore: The Flat Bay Collective is a low-key, informal gathering of artists in Washington County, Maine. We support each other’s work and maintain a common website to present it (flatbaycollective.org). Most fruitful are the collaborations, which include feedback for writing-in-progress, co-translation, music, and design of books. Last but not least, we have produced letter-press chapbooks of poetry.
Writer’s groups have become common––they offer wonderful opportunities for learning, motivating one another, and building community. For us, the exchange with artists of different media is an added benefit.
Lisa: There’s so much to mourn and feel anger and despair about in this world; how do you keep your spirits up?
Leonore: I just saw The Square, a film about the uprising in Egypt. The documentary follows a number of very sympathetic protesters––their bravery, their eloquence, their effort of conscience are entirely admirable! I take with me the joy that I live in a world where these young people are active. I also take with me the devastating thought that they have not reached their goal of democracy, and that many of their peers have been killed, imprisoned, or silenced. The point is that my thinking is malleable––and feelings follow suit. I don’t have to repeat over and over the inner monolog of devastation to the point that it harms me. The world is not one bit better off if I insist on feeling angry or sad, however justified that may be.
When I find myself going “down,” I pay attention to things I can actively shape. I limit my intake of graphic cruelty. I take care of my body: good food, exercise, sleep. I alert those who love me. In quarrels, I attempt to see things from the perspective of the other and to ask open-ended questions in a spirit of generosity. Not that this is easy. But over the years, I have come to trust in the process.
Lisa: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Leonore: Thank you for the opportunity to think about your probing questions, Lisa. Your inquisitive mind, your gentle presence, and your sensitive poetry––all of these are admirable. May you be very well.
“Rock Me” by Leonore Hildebrandt was originally published in Gemini Magazine.
Musician, poet, activist and truth teller Neil Young speaks poignantly about why he decided to go on tour to raise money to help First Nations indigenous Canadian people fight corporate controlled government, in order to ensure the health of the earth and well being of future generations.
Explanation of indigenous human and environmental rights and violations being committed by Canadian government:
Deeply inspired by the bravery, strength, vision and dedication of these righteous Passamaquoddy women…
Teacher, Activist, Social Worker, Co-Founder of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process: b. 1968
“For native people forced assimilation and acculturation distort our thoughts, feelings and actions creating a disconnect with our identity and traditions. We start to believe that there is something wrong with us. The truth is our resilience, strength, humor and intelligence have saved us from extinction, will enable us to heal from generational trauma and will restore our culture so we may thrive as the distinct, unique, beautiful people the Creator meant for us to be.”
Activist, Community Organizer, Co-Founder of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process : b. 1959
For more information on the groundbreaking, invaluable work these women are doing with the Maine-Wabanki TRC:
In these videos Willi Nolan speaks eloquently about why it’s abhorrent that oil and gas companies are trying to force their way into Wabanaki territories in New Brunswick. Fracking poisons the water and pollutes the sky and earth in the name of shortsighted greed. Nolan beautifully defends the earth, women and humanity and talks about injustice and oppression towards the land and first nations people that activists are working tirelessly to challenge. The truth is the light, righteousness is victory, “the forest and the water will be protected…no more poisons.”
I learned about Lorraine Hansberry through the great songwriter, musician, performer and civil rights activist hero Nina Simone. Hansberry, a genius playwright who died at age 34, was one of the first people who inspired Simone to work for social justice and the rights of black people.
Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun is a brilliant, stunning work of art, as well as important social commentary on the oppression of minorities and the need for compassion that transcends human constructed barriers. Such assets of literature are still highly relevant 55 years after A Raisin in the Sun’s debut.
The title of the play, and perhaps the premise, comes from the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred.”What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat Or crust and sugar over— Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
Hansberry asks the same questions as Hughes’ poem in A Raisin in the Sun, a drama both captivating and heart-wrenching in its realistic depiction of the lives of a hard-working yet impoverished black family living in cold war era Chicago. A Raisin in the Sun centers around the dreams each family member has for a better life—dreams that are hungry for progress & growth, desperate for survival & self-worth. Ultimately it is the communal, life-giving dream of the family matriarch, Mama, which brings understanding, strength, perseverance and dignity to a family hindered by circumstances–victims of racism, poverty and bad luck.
Every line in the A Raisin in the Sun serves to show insight into the characters of the family and adds to the construction of scene and setting, such as in the following passage portraying Mama’s messages of love:
“There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing…Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”
The speaker, Mama, is an emblem of a family structure that holds love above all else, allowing self-respect and humanity to prevail.
Hansberry’s play shows that amidst a world of hypocrisy, hatred and apathy, we can overcome the most daunting trials through love for one another, understanding, solidarity and being true to ourselves, our families, and a greater good. We may be broke and have nothing material in this world, but strength comes through maintaining dignity and being able to hold our heads high with satisfied minds.
Paula Marie Coomer is a nurse and writer who uses poems as balm. Her latest collection of poetry Nurses Who Love English gives a diverse coalescence of lyric story and song: a soundtrack to a personal history that traces American landscapes of ghosts, rivers, mountains, healers, wanderers and the divine. The language in these poems feels authentic, giving the sense of passing through forest roads and being let into secrets near campfires, in fields and in diners.
The poems range stylistically from couplets to syllabics to found poems, all containing imagery of earth, dream, memory, presence and desire. Coomer’s use of the prose poem is notably musical and enchanting:
“He carves us pitch for better spark and hotter kindling to knit old times with folks he doesn’t even know. The fire keeps you and I tippling Glenlivet and telling serendipity tales long after he drives into the October dim.
Brook trout with strawberry bellies, fins dipped white-edged, trimmed like frosting, leave Strawberry Lake by the scores to spawn, thick enough to walk across the fingers of the delta. I think it’s a miracle and accuse you: you led us here because humans need to see miracles now and again.” – from“Strawberry Lake’s Photo Album”
One of the most compelling aspects of Coomer’s poetry is the surprising and spiritual glimpses into human relationships.
Nurses Who Love English offers current social commentary, like in “Polar Bear SOS,” which gives stark and realistic visions of polar bears drowning in the melting polar icecap, and in “A New Poetry,” where the luck of a few people is juxtaposed with the destruction of others, and the raven’s song has the final say. While using art to imitate the life of now, Nurses Who Love English keeps hold of a well-rooted foundation capable of transforming the heartbreak of loss and war with beauty and love.
The book showcases other types of transformation as well. In “On Leaving Home” the narrator describes boldly breaking free of her Indiana homeland at a young age, and how the place “never said, daughter, why don’t you/come on home, now, you hear? It just let me/go. It let me take my satchel and book bag/and follow the creek out of the woods, down/and out of my holler.” Here the narrator recognizes the need to spread her wings in order to survive, yet she is pulled by a telepathic message from her Aunt Imogene, “Smart girls don’t drill holes in the water bucket.” The poem ends. Such unsentimental telling is a Paula Marie Coomer signature, seen also in the Americana traveling poem that comprises her chapbook Road.
Coomer’s poems show us how to meld into our surroundings, which in turn become us, and give us the wisdom to love trees, sip water straight from the well, and listen to birds give blessings, “Safe journey earth daughter.”
Review by Lisa Panepinto
Originally published at: cabildoquarterly.tumblr.com