This poetry collection searchingly considers the ambiguous role of the poet as a mediator between soul and nature.
In the title poem, which also stands as an epigraph, Collins (Psalmandala, 2014, etc.) establishes his stance: because “Soul never presents in its own shape” and “can only stalk sunfaces from their shadows,” the soul’s presence must be discerned from clues, as a hawk’s flight reveals the wind that it rides on. But the observer also creates, so that clouds, for example, make him or her “imagine horses / become horses: horses become gods.” The way that the soul mediates the divine doesn’t, however, get us any closer to the soul, as our “similes bleed out.” And because “entropy claims / every dawn,” we’re left to figure out a way to live, “to imagine / wandering on” in a world of appearances. For the poet, this means long walks around the harbor, which serves as a central image and metaphor throughout the collection. Although the word “harbor” has connotations of haven and safety and is said to be a place that calls out our authentic selves (“We are each ourselves at the harbor: / Runners run, readers read, children play”), it’s also depicted as a constantly changing threshold, a route to the mythic “Underworld.” The speaker’s longing for spiritual connection is constantly tested by the harbor, with its oil spills and stench of death.
Collins’ use of language in this collection, and especially of verbs, is fresh, and he employs forms that help to convey the feel of his speakers’ daily walking meditations. In several poems he writes of the impulse to render the world in poetry and the natural world’s resistance to being reduced to metaphor. In “Ars Poetica,” for example, a nest-building bird momentarily “seems my soul,” teaching a poet to move between worlds as fledglings are taught to move between nest and sky. But, looking up after writing his poem, he sees that “She is gone.” Collins also addresses how imagination can interfere with one’s ability to discern realities, such as the cycle of life and death. For example, a speaker remembers how, as a child, he saw a caught fish gasping out its life—now he “hear[s] myself think look, the fish is playing”; on the harbor ice, gulls are shown dropping clams to shatter their shells, “again, again, again, again, forever.” Still, though his poems are often serious, melancholy, or rueful, Collins can also sometimes laugh at himself. One especially strong poem, for instance, is “The Sacrosanct Mallard of Mamaroneck Harbor,” in which the speaker satirizes his own tendency to epiphanize, claiming that it’s not his fault: “Listen, Jesus, it wasn’t my idea / for this mallard to stand on the dock / stretching his wings out all crucifixiony.” In the final section, the speaker becomes willing to live in mystery, guided by the soul’s “impossible eyesight” that discloses other worlds "by what imagines to contain it.”
Strong, moving poems of reflection in a fine collection.
Briggs (Violet, 2015, etc.) offers a haunting, gothic mystery set in Northern England.
Felicity “Lissa” Godwin was a rising star in the classical music world until a series of tragic deaths and professional disappointments caused the gifted harpist to abandon her promising career. The young American woman journeys to the frozen, windswept Yorkshire Dales in search of healing and peace. There, the dignified beauty of an old country estate serves as the perfect setting for Briggs’ sublime cast of characters and arresting narrative. Lissa’s destination, Denham House, is more than just a country retreat; it was also once the home of her recently deceased aunt, acclaimed harpist Ciara Rossi. Lissa falls in love with Yorkshire and discovers not only familial affection, but an unexpected reignition of her musical passion. She’s further caught off guard by the handsome, mysterious, and extraordinarily talented Dr. Richard D’Annunzio. A series of accidents, unexplained occurrences, and whispered rumors hint at dark secrets lurking within the house’s staid walls and behind the inhabitants’ courtly manners. Briggs deftly lays the groundwork for a gripping mystery, suggesting that Ciara’s short-lived marriage to her husband, John, may not have been the fairy tale that it appeared to be. Briggs is a lyrical writer who composes her narrative with a skillful hand. Her evocative prose draws on elements of literature and music to describe such things as Lissa’s stunning concert dress, which conjures images of “Isolde dreaming of Tristan, watching the restless heaving of a cold Cornish sea.” She also expertly imbues her characters’ musical performances with a tension and emotion that are truly breathtaking; Briggs draws upon her own experiences as a harpist when describing a transition from an intermezzo to a finale, which Lissa feels as “an ironic, disillusioned snarl that cut into my heart.”
A small-town hairdresser is not quite what she seems in this novel of life under cover.
Charlie Bader, a dentist living in Dallas in 1933, is happily married until his wife catches him lounging in her nightgown doing his nails. She runs off to New Boston, Texas, to train for missionary work in Africa. He relocates to Chicago, where he finds a circle of secretly cross-dressing men—most of whom, like him, are staunchly heterosexual—who give him fashion advice, invite him to drag teas, help him cultivate a high-pitched lilt, and call him “Charlene.” But Charlie’s life is still lonely, as he feels unable to approach a woman, for fear she will discover his hidden passion and reject him. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, he emerges feeling even further alienated from his manhood. He goes to the town of Heaven, Indiana, to live as a woman, using well-honed makeover skills to open a hairstyling and manicure salon. Charlie’s perspective shifts from studying womanhood through the eyes of a man to connecting more intimately with it through the lives of Charlene’s customers. Her beauty shop becomes a gathering place for the ladies of Heaven to trade gossip, hatch plans, and share confidences with the always sympathetic and discreet Charlene. She initially basks in Heaven’s seeming quiet and orderliness, but tension builds as she falls in love with a customer, knowing that she might be run out of town if she voices her feelings.
Maher (Heaven, Indiana, 2000, etc.) treats Charlene’s story with sensitivity and nuance, letting it entwine organically with the life of the town that first appeared in her previous novel. Charlie’s early exploration of femininity is portrayed as less sexual than sensual, consisting of a fascination with elegant outfits, perfectly poised manners, and the seductive tactile pleasure of women’s clothing: “The silkiness felt exquisite and forbidding, soothing and terrible, comforting and dangerously damning.” The author’s limpid prose also captures the subtleties of women’s lives, from catty fencing—“Elizabeth Tipton had a way of complimenting you, Minnie thought, that almost made you feel like she didn’t take you seriously”—to a 10-year-old’s clumsy stabs at sophistication to the exasperated kindness of a daughter caring for her parents. The writing is suffused with deadpan humor but resists caricatures; Charlene balances her furtive yearnings with sober restraint, and her customers aren’t small-minded yokels but complex, curious people who are willing to expand their horizons. Heaven is a richly textured place of church socials, quilting and pie-making contests at the county fair, and neighborly help for families burdened by sickness and age. But there are darker elements, as well, such as a con man who threatens to expose Charlene and a mystery involving a teenage girl who died after giving birth to a now-missing child. In Maher’s tapestry, the unconventional, even subversive, impulses of misfits and “ordinary” folk find a place in a convincing whole.
A quietly luminous tale of folksy gender-bending that’s entertaining and authentic.
A historical novel about one woman’s troubled life in Nebraska in the early years of the 20th century.
After escaping a miserable childhood, Louise Morrissey yearns for and works hard at living a respectable life in Riverbend, Nebraska. But that life is seriously compromised by her extramarital affair with Dr. Benjamin Dewitt Foster. Their child, Marie Alouette, is born blind because of Foster’s gonorrhea, which infected Louise and resulted in the all-too-common ophthalmia neonatorum, known as “babies’ sore eyes.” Louise’s husband, Frank, is impotent, but she convinces him that he impregnated her during a bout of blackout drunkenness, setting the stage for decades of deception. Frank turns out to be a loving parent and Marie, a heroically cheerful little girl. Her father gets her on the Chautauqua lecture circuit as a child elocutionist, and she becomes a big hit. While on tour, a friend tells Frank that he’s likely not Marie’s father. In a drunken rage, Frank races home to confront Louise and the man that he wrongly suspects her of sleeping with, Yonder LaFontaine. Following a tragedy, the story shifts as Louise begins to lobby for laws mandating that newborns be immediately treated to prevent needless blindness. It’s hard, uphill work, and a contrite Foster becomes her ally. Through Chautauqua, she comes to know the famous Helen Keller, who pitches in for the cause. Englert’s novel intriguingly mixes fiction and real-life history. Along the way, the author highlights how guilt becomes both a gall and a goad for Louise; in a final cleansing, confessional speech, for example, she admits that Marie was the victim of Louise’s gonorrheal infection. Englert also effectively uses the idea of blindness literally and figuratively, showing how Victorian mores rule in Riverbend. Louise is even hectored for using the dreaded word “gonorrhea” during her lobbying effort, and the Ladies’ Home Journal loses subscribers in droves after running articles that warn of sexually transmitted diseases. The story also points out the society’s ugly, nativist bigotry, which claimed that only immigrants spread such infections.
A recommended historical novel that almost perfectly captures its time and place.
An essayist pens an ode to womanhood in this debut memoir.
When the young, single mother who lived across the street from Jarrell was murdered, it triggered insecurities about her own upbringing: “It was her aloneness. That old, familiar, just-we-two aloneness I couldn’t bear to see up close again.” The author was raised by her mother, with periodic appearances from her handsome father, a charismatic yet manipulative man they called Nick. Her mother wed Nick at age 16. Jarrell recounts tales about their early relationship, “his jealousy and her bruises,” with a sense of dread. Once the author was born, her mother saved up enough money to leave her father, leading to a series of childhood stories linked by the inherent danger of inhabiting a female body—from Jarrell seeing a woman get harassed by three adolescent boys to Nick voicing his disturbing opinions about “good girls.” Later, in the author’s adult relationships, she took great pains to avoid her mother’s mistakes. Still, she found herself shacking up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Wes, a dead-end boyfriend who was not completely unlike Nick, and learning to cope with her husband Brad’s imperfections. What shines in these autobiographical essays is Jarrell’s rendering of her mother, an honest examination of this capable, desirable, and well-traveled woman who was nonetheless unable to resist Nick’s pull. Their mother-daughter relationship is more poignant than any love story (in one stirring vignette, the two crammed into a tiny single bed on vacation because they couldn’t bear to sleep in separate rooms) and similarly fraught with complications. These difficulties included Jarrell’s disgust when her mother repeatedly succumbed to Nick’s charms. The author has published essays in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, and her skill is evident in her deliberate prose. Regarding her father’s infidelity, she simply writes about her parents: “Twice he’d told her to go to the doctor to see if he’d given her gonorrhea.” Though the settings of Jarrell’s stories range from Camden, Maine, to Italy and Los Angeles, the author’s small-town Americana tone is reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates. The work’s lasting message is that love, like Jarrell’s prose, is both painful and beautiful.
A stunning series of recollections with a feminist slant.
After her parents die, a young queen ventures forth to learn more about the world and its people in this children’s novella.
The queen’s mother and father have died, leaving her all alone in the world. She goes on a journey to see if anyone wants to change places with her; she meets a succession of women with curious professions, including a “book sniffer,” an “architect of solitude,” and a “foreshadowing artist.” (No men, apart from the queen’s father, appear in the book.) The little monarch is interested by each possibility, but after learning more about the jobs, she realizes that she lacks the training, patience, and dedication for any of them. Nevertheless, her trip is valuable, because she’s “learning the language of her world.” In her travels, the queen and the editor of the Digital Dictionary of Sounds, who’s “famous for her very large ears,” fall in love, but the queen still wants to keep exploring. After some important discoveries and realizations, the queen returns home, marries her beloved editor, and invites the women she’s met to collaborate on making new homes for the needy. These include the Open Home of Books and Leaves, the Dreamy Home of Water and Hammocks, and the Textual Home of Body and Language; all are available “if one seeks them in just the right way.” Geddes (Love Letters to the World, 2016) offers an intriguing world in her novella—a dreamlike setting with elements of myths, fables, and poetry. The story’s opening sentence may sound unattractively twee (“On a little world, upon a little hill, a little tear fell down a little face”), but this impression soon vanishes as the book reveals itself to be something original and poetic, with striking grayscale images by Miller.And there’s no preciousness in figures like the “poop encourager”: “I suppose there is something about my voice that…moves…their bowels,” she explains with pride. Geddes has a generous view of people, art, and nature, and it comes across beautifully in this work.
A surprising and enchanting parable about personal and artistic growth.