Reviewed by Anita Sullivan
Dear John–– by Laura LeHew
The Poetry Box (November 2021) 101 pages, $16.00
Available at: https://thepoetrybox.com/bookstore/dear-john
Everybody has a love life of some sort. If you’re a poet, you are in an excellent position to write about your own version in a way that might be helpful or interesting to others going through the joys and agonies love always provides; comparing notes, so to speak.
Yes, Laura LeHew’s Dear John–– is a collection of love poems. But not in the way the title (and splendid cover art) might well lead you to expect. Instead of several dozen poems about failed or unrequited love filled with sweet apology and regret, these are working poems that have been charged with documenting a complicated set of experiences like a finely-detailed road map. They contain the many twists and turns and forking paths involved in a particular set of adult love relationships, as told by a single, passionate person.
You could almost read the entire book as a novel. The main character is the poet telling her own story, but immediately the reader is drawn into her vulnerability. I was going to tell you the green herons have come back, says the gorgeously nostalgic opening line of the first poem, “Thermals.” The poem unfolds as if it were a letter to a lover who had died, and the reader can comfortably settle into the sorrowful mindset evoked by repetitions of I was going to tell you. Until at the very end, there is a surprise that kicks open a much larger possibility. It is a brilliant beginning for an intriguing and stimulating journey that the poet is taking right along with you.
As I read through the poems the first time, I felt them presenting the shadowy outline of a plot. There has been a slow divorce; there is now a second lover who is emotionally damaged, and the poet keeps trying new metaphors to help her adjust to his silences, his seeming disapprovals. She is out of her depth and the emotional stress allows her to call up her poetic skills to help her figure out what to do next.
In this time of war. This thumbtack. This porch ….
This very aperture, skeleton key, bullet hole.
You are tusk and trouble. This house, this life, the
silence. This uneasy banter. This pinch.
¬(“You Have No Punctuation”)
In the spirit of trying everything, the poet speaks through a variety of poetic forms including several prose poems and a few sestinas. Almost every poem is a new experiment in trying to drive a wedge into a place of deeper understanding.
I want to keep you
forever a trophy ambered
or etched in glass or devoured
& zooming & splitting up
such a bad idea
& I never know where
your sins have been ….
my love is a curse
& there is nothing
you can do about it
(“It’s 3 AM & Somewhere in Singapore”)
Sometimes there is humor, as the tension of uncertainty becomes unbearable. In a poem titled “Eleven Little Love Stories,” there are only nine stories. Here are the final 3½:
The truth is I don’t think
he is the one. Whatever
I want he wants. He says my name
& cries. I want a man
who is my compass. Gives me
roots & wings & the burden
of my dreams.
The penultimate poem, “A Full One Hundred & Twenty Count Box of Red Crayons,”
is a sestina, a tour-de-force that finally brings together both the tension and the fire that has continued between the poet and her beloved:
you have no words but everyday imply crush
make my flesh tremble crush
my two kinds of empty flames
hidden beneath surface opposition
lightning when the wind curves taut
in a sky of tongues
I have been waiting for you to find me
This brilliant book closes with seven short, tender poems addressed to the John in the title, a friend whom LeHew actually has corresponded with for many years. In these poem-letters, the reader is reminded that every friendship is a kind of love affair. It pays to keep an open heart so as not to miss a minute of each love experience whenever it comes into your life.
Poet Anita Sullivan also writes fiction and nonfiction, including a monthly blog on her
website www.anitasullivan.org. She has an upcoming poetry collection from Shanti Arts called Carnival of Hinges.