Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key by Kelly Terwilliger, reviewed by Anita Sullivan

Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key by Kelly Terwilliger

Airlie Press, Portland, OR
ISBN-13 978-0989579964
2017, 79 pp., $16.00

Reviewed by Anita Sullivan

When you pick up a copy of this remarkable book, stop! Look at the cover – really look at it. Across the bottom rests a narrow strip of seashore in vivid blues, whites and browns. Above that, sky takes up the rest of the space. The ratio of sky to seashore is 5 to 1, which may resonate slightly in your vision as a very satisfying relationship. Yet the placidity of this image is interrupted near the top of the page by an odd little island with some old-fashioned people on it who seem to have no idea their small piece of ground has been detached from its own world and inserted into another one. Two distinct realities inhabiting a single place. Already, you might feel the center of your forehead humming with anticipation.

Then you read the title words: Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key. And the humming grows louder. If you squint a little and move the words around in your mind, you may recognize them as similar to an Anglo-Saxon kenning – an ancient word puzzle where certain words can be mixed and matched in ways that allow them to strike sparks off one another and reveal hidden meanings. For example:

king     dragon
hall      cave

  1. The king is a hall-dragon.
  2. The dragon is a cave-king.
  3. The hall is the king’s cave.
  4. The cave is the dragon’s hall.

Such simple word-sets formed the underlying structure of Anglo-Saxon riddles. Although the four words in Terwilliger’s title don’t fall neatly into this particular pattern, I feel them making a close quadrille with one another: A riddle can be a key, a fish-hook can be a thorn; a riddle can hook you, a key can pierce your heart. Thorn and Fish Hook stand between Riddle and its Key.

Throughout the book, true to the cover’s promise, these and other words shape-shift into one another in ways that are always surprising, but always completely appropriate to the underlying pattern the original magic formula has ordained.

The opening section, “Air” is also about water, about breathing and folding, taking in and letting out, jumping into. Entire poems breathe in as one thing, breathe out as another as when one sound shifts in a word/and summons another.

In “Handkerchief” the poet remembers a father, who sneezed and carried/this crumpled peony in his pocket.

Folding her father’s handkerchiefs, warm from the dryer, clinging together/like pages of a fragile book, she goes back to the flower image as she folds

                                  soft square
halving and halving. What if I’d just kept going?
Blossoms unblooming, reversing
to a single point
with everything inside them.

In “Night Song” she feels her way into the longing of the owl’s call:

Not sorrow, but the overflow
of wanting to live, to break open
all those feathers into night …

The second section, “Body,” intensifies the theme of falling apart and coming back together to live again (which recalls the ancient enactment of death by dismemberment and burial as a rite of spiritual renewal).

The first poem begins big – imagining how a whale might die at sea:

turning softly within
to something like cream, until
the skin splits, the rest
falls away.

The poet then brings the whale body onto shore.

What then, strange coat. . . .
A hill of skin
enough to hide a house.

But the poem does not end there: a man rides down the beach on a horse; a group of people stand around the carcass, waiting for him. Where is the whale? Here on the sand, yes, but at the same time forever out at sea:

             bones still falling.
I’m sure of it. Slipped from the skin
they descend through the sea’s green rooms …

Later in the section, in “Gift Horse,” the horse itself is now dead on the beach, like an old sail blown in.

The poet, looking at the horse, feels herself changing into an animal: I begin to wear fur. I feel hairs on my skin,/between my teeth, in every breath.

Half animal now, she reaches into the horse’s mouth, and behind the tongue/ that isn’t there, something jiggles./Riddle, fish hook, thorn, key –

Two more observations about this amazingly coherent and luminous book:

First, at the core of all the poems, whether there are people in them or not, is a steadfast and palpable love. The poet’s father is sometimes directly present, as are her two sons, and once they have been introduced, you realize they are, in some sense, inhabiting every poem. “Beyond Swans” begins

My friend once ate a swan,
the only thing she was ashamed to admit
she’d gladly do again.

And the poem, after immersing itself fully into the magnificence of this bird as cloud god, with its intimacy of weight, slips easily into a memory of the poet being tenderly carried as a sleeping child, up from the beach at night by her father,

He climbed up and over the rocks,
            and my body felt loose and safe.

After which, turning back to the swan, she says

This is how I’d carry her
the one-who-ate-a-swan, who probably
never will again, whose burdens now
have changed their shapes, as burdens do.

Second, in my own reading of poetry, I especially look out for how much distance a poet is able to maintain between what she is trying to say, and what she actually ends up saying. If this distance is too close, the poem may feel “controlled,” and tend to be merely descriptive or informational. If the distance is too wide, the poem risks veering off into blind alleys of personal symbols or getting trapped in a kind of feedback loop of seductive images or sounds that have detached themselves from actual experience. In Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key, I believe Kelly Terwilliger has managed – partly due perhaps to her long experience as a professional storyteller – to maintain a perfect distance, thus allowing The Mystery to be doing its essential work to keep the poems honest, beautiful, and strange.

 

Reviewer’s Bio:

Anita Sullivan is a poet and essayist who has been part of Oregon’s literary community for 35 years. Information about her work can be found at www.anitasullivan.org

 

No Acute Distress by Jennifer Richter, reviewed by Tiah Lindner Raphael

No Acute Distress by Jennifer Richter

Southern Illinois University Press
ISBN-13 #978-0809334827
2016, 67 pp, $15.95
Author website: www.jenniferrichterpoet.com

Reviewed by Tiah Lindner Raphael

From Disease to Ease: Transforming Pain into Resilience

Jennifer Richter’s second full-length collection, No Acute Distress, was published in 2016 by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Editor’s Selection. Following her first collection, Threshold, which won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Open Competition, No Acute Distress centers around family, un/health, chronic disease, and the way in which these forces shape identity. The collection follows a single speaker in an arc of transformation, looking for the universal through the lens of intensely personal – and physical – experiences.

Structurally, the book is divided into sections  – “Family History,” “Admission,” “Examination,” “Complications,” “Release” – mirroring the inpatient intake and treatment process. Medical terminology is explored in all its surrealism from the title itself to PICC lines, from visual pain scales to a list that highlights the bizarre naming of pharmaceuticals:

                I’ve tried Depakote, Sinequan,
Zomig, Xanax, Toradol: fuck you. Fuck
your side effects, your scripts fanned out then dealt
to me for years. And Midrin, Flexeril,
Vicodin, Axert, Celebrex, Frova
that hooked me – what the fuck?
                        – “Eighteen Seconds”

Throughout the collection, the body is alternately cataloged with clinical efficiency or given the extreme tenderness of an intimate or caregiver, treating language-lovers to a subtle lexicon that includes femurs, veins, spines, and the wild labor of birth. In the long poem “Eighteen Seconds,” Richter writes, My body’s dragging like a plastic sack /of batteries: they’re dead or not, can’t tell.

Indeed, the body plays such a central role in No Acute Distress because Richter uses it as both a vehicle for action and agency and as a limiting force: Lately I feel my body’s felt docked, as in: all aboard (“I’m Used to Feeling Like I’m Moving Even When I’m Still”). The plurality of strength and weakness, vulnerability and ferocity, is particularly noticeable in Richter’s poems about children. For example in “My Daughter Brings Home Bones,” she writes about the bright future of a young daughter on the cusp:

                               In this next decade, she’ll go: head off like
today, take into her arms all she’s curious about. Her line of bones
makes an arrow; sun lights them like a sign.

In contrast, in “My Boy, My Body: When I Type I Always Mix Them Up,” Richter describes a sick child and the pain of parental guilt.

                                                             The surgeon finally
emerges with photos: the shadowed terrain inside my son like a
moonscape if the moon were smooth. He slides a pen from his
pocket. I fidget like I’m starved. With the tip he traces exactly
where my body, when I made Luke’s, made it wrong.

The further one gets into No Acute Distress, the more one notes the role of pain, in both its physical and emotional manifestations. In these poems, Richter asks difficult questions about the nature of pain, how it shapes the individual and whether or not that pain brings people closer in shared experience or pushes them toward isolation. In “My Own Blood,” the speaker discusses her mother’s ill health, Our pain’s the same, behind one eye. She knows /some studies trace mine back to her.       

As she explores the experience of disease, one’s own and that of others, Richter creates a collection permeated with a specific sense of unease, even in times of relative wellness: I’m fine if you mean satisfactory (“Eighteen Seconds”). However, by the final section of the collection, “Release,” the tone of the poems changes towards one of transformation. In the poem “Imagine,” the speaker mourns what has been lost in her journey:

                                                                              Our
Children’s mouths sigh open in the dark. They’re not surprised:
The healer touched me, and it worked. They’ve seen magicians –
Beneath the sheet that’s pulled away, something’s always gone.                                                            

However, in the next poem, “Synesthesia: The Way I See It,” the speaker shows herself to be in a place of more peaceful acceptance: I’m better now;/Still trying to make sense of everything. By the final poem, “No Joke,” Richter’s speaker reflects on her transformation and pauses in a state of gratitude: Even the quality of the light is new. I’ve come so far.     

Readers, too, will find themselves grateful for the experience of sitting with Richter’s rich poems. Illness is a universal experience and, shaped by Richter’s deft hand, one that gives readers a way into the most complex questions about body, being, and selfhood.

 

Reviewer’s Bio:

Tiah Lindner Raphael is an obsessive gardener and writer living in Portland, Oregon. A frequent volunteer with the journal VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions, her poems have most recently appeared in Cloudbank, Pretty Owl Poetry and Spoon River Poetry Review.

 

Everything is Shining By Jan David Madsen, reviewed by Emily Pittman Newberry

Everything is Shining By Jan David Madsen

Lulu, 2016, 66 pages, $15
ISBN 978-1329812314
Available at https://www.lulu.com/
Author website: https://zestymumbles.com/

Reviewed by Emily Pittman Newberry

When Carolyn Martin sent out a call for poets to write reviews of books, I scanned the list of books on the OPA website and was drawn to Everything is Shining just by the sound of the title. As I read it through the first two times, I loved many of the poems.

The book opens with some intriguing pieces. “Dust To Dust” is a nicely done meditation on the concept of no thing. No thing is the belief in a deeper reality that is neither what we think of as nothing nor made up of stuff. It is more real than the material world around us. The poem begins, Ask when I first knew that everything/was shining, all at once, like the sun … and ends, That it is the dust in which I Am/ dancing forever. This line – with the capitalized I Am – leaves us with the mystery of whom is being referred to: the speaker or pure Beingness, the nonmaterial world out of which we are all made.

In “Ever Again,” we are treated to a prose poem that is interspersed with a more traditionally formatted, three-stanza poem. In the prose sections the speaker is present with his internal state. The poetry weaves in the felt and seen world around him. The single word Silence at the end invited me to be present with internal and external physical experiences in a way that transcends the boundary we normally perceive as solid.

In addition, this poem repeats words from an earlier poem, “That Day,” which describes a similar experience, but one that is not exactly the same. The words of a saint, “Ever Again” says, retrieved and read many, many times. In “That Day” the saint’s words appear as a pantomime: the stream seems to mummer the words of the saint. In “Ever Again” these same words peek through worn-thin papers to speak of this dissolving leap into reality from the depth of silence beneath. I found this intermixing and repetition to be almost a conversation between the two poems. It drew me in and motivated me to re-read both.

Other poems use sweet language to engage the reader. In “Mist,” the speaker says, Let me evaporate/ like the dew on the leaves, and “Moment In A Meadow” opens with Bright sun dappling green-dance in the trees.

Given how much I liked many of the poems, others left me wishing they had been reworked. For example, “A Real Poser” begins with a very dark blind and the very bright lamp. Then in the third and fourth stanzas the speaker throws out a series of questions: What is it?/Where is this place?/Is it day or night? and What’s going on?/Is it some kind of trick?/An illusion? He then answers, Yes, yes it is! And, of course, Everyone is in on it! Here we are spoon fed the questions and the answers are handed to us on a silver platter.

The poem “Draw” does the same thing. It begins with two stanzas in which the speaker asks to be literally drawn on paper, ending with the poetic, The surface upon which I am drawn is still upon a blank and empty page. Then the poem ends with a line of questions in which the speaker again tells us the answers we are to reach rather than showing them poetically.

I hope this author keeps writing and that we will see more from him with poems like “Dust To Dust,” “Ever Again,” “Mist,” and “Moment In A Meadow.”

 

Reviewer’s Bio:

Emily Pittman Newberry is a performance poet living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing explores the challenges of living as spiritual beings in a human world.  OneSpirit Press published her first full book of poetry, Butterfly A Rose, and a chapbook, Nature Speaking, Naturally, now used in art therapy classes for elders. She wrote poetry for the artist’s book Water by Shu-Ju Wang. Her work has appeared in journals such as VoiceCatcher, The Tishman Review, and Kind Of A Hurricane Press. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. Her website is www.butterflyarose.com