Janice Moore Fuller   •  October 25, 2003

Waiting for the Muse to Speak

Books by Three Women Living in the South

Flow Blue by Sarah Kennedy
Minneapolis, MN: Elixir Press, 2002
ISBN: 0-9708342, 85 pages, $13

Every Tree Is the Forest by Emöke B’Racz
Asheville, NC: Burning Bush Press, 2002, 69 pages
www.malaprops.com, $20

Waiting for the Trout to Speak by Irene Honeycutt
Charlotte, NC: Novello Festival Press, 2002
ISBN: 0-9708972-3-5, 71 pages, $13.95

About fifteen years ago, I sent an undergraduate poet over to UNC-Greensboro to talk to Jim Clark about the MFA program. A twenty-year-old Canadian, precocious in his craft, committed to the writing life, my student carried with him a sheaf of his best work, love poems circling and circling the same failed relationship. A few days later, Jim left this message on my answering machine: “Tell your student to go live for ten years and then come back and see me.”

In a time when MFA programs are proliferating faster than I can keep up with, when young poets less talented than my student seem to find homes for themselves and their poems in writing programs, how grateful I am to come upon poems by three female poets who have lived full lives before writing and publishing their books. As I read Sarah Kennedy’s Flow Blue, Emöke B’Racz’s Every Tree Is the Forest, and Irene Honeycutt’s Waiting for the Trout To Speak — books by mature women living in the South — I can’t help thinking about Rilke’s words in Letters to a Young Poet: “Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come.” Yes, I’m grateful for these three women writing in the summers of their poetic careers, discovering Wordsworth’s “primal sympathy” in the “years that bring the philosophic mind.”

*  *  *

In letter eight, Rilke asks the young poet Kappus, “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?” Sarah Kennedy in Flow Blue has clearly learned this lesson. She does not shield us or herself from suffering or the work it might be doing inside her. In poem after poem, she feels out what Rilke calls “the shapes of [her] terrible dungeons,” refusing to be a stranger to the “unspeakable terror” of sexual abuse and a cruel, oppressive marriage.

The cover of Flow Blue showcases a piece of Flow Blue china against a fold of rumpled gold fabric. Created through a new technique for decorating pottery developed in Battersea around 1775, Flow Blue china offered the middle and working classes a chance to own copies of the Chinese porcelain popular with the uppercrust British. The cobalt design of the expensive porcelain was transferred onto common pottery using a blue underglaze that, in sinking into the porous earthenware, would blur and flow. The deep blurring covered flaws in the printing and defects in the pottery. But sometimes the romantic flow of glaze became a distortion, a smearing that almost effaced the intricate pattern of blossoms and vines.

In the title poem of the book, the young speaker, a tortured newly-wed, finds the “one uncracked plate” in a chipped Flow Blue tea set in an antique store. While it’s the undamaged plate she recovers, she’s still struck by how “color has bled through the china’s white skin.” Standing outside in the light, she notices how the pattern of indigo swirls and blossoms “looks like a bruise.”

In this poem, as in all the book’s poems, Kennedy is more interested in how the china’s beauty blurs into a bruise than she is in how a bruise can be transformed into beauty. In poem after poem in the first two sections, Kennedy pounds the reader with what seems almost the same tormented story: The motifs of the first section (“The Good Student”) — shot-gun car seats, drugs, sixties rock anthems, a molesting brother-in-law’s dirty hands — give way to equally sordid ones in the second section (“Flow Blue”) — an abusive, philandering husband; slaughtered farm animals; Winchester rifles.

Kennedy offers this seamless narrative in brutally flat, mainly monosyllabic language:

When my face hits the oak door, I think
my nose is broken, then hear my husband:
It’s that walk, damn you, you’re doing it
for that boy.

(“The Walk”)

Yet with each poem she shifts to a different, deftly precise form — a continuous verse paragraph or couplets, tercets, or quatrains (in some poems flush left, in others stepped). With each poem, then, she seems to promise a new beginning, some hope for the persona, only to stagger us again when we realize this is another incarnation of the same harsh tale.

Rilke urges the young poet to endure his large sadnesses in the hope of “something new”: “Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.” He asks him if he has forgotten “those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.” Transformation comes late in Flow Blue, if at all. At the end of the third section, in “This Is My Body,” Kennedy teases the reader with an Easter play in which the children resurrect “their little Jesus” only to the end the poem with a Presbyterian minister who presses his sexual advances in the basement while the play rehearses upstairs.

Only in the next poem — after thirty-six unflinching poems of abuse and entrapment — does Kennedy offer any hope of escape. And then it comes, as it does in Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” in the unlikeliest mammalian form. In “Possum,” the female protagonist burns the rotting trash pile in her back yard. Adding wooden stakes and a couple of plastic dolls to the pyre, she remembers her father’s story of another fire in which “a stiff possum,” thrown on the heap, pops up, “reborn from the blaze,/ and leaps, beyond all strength of possums,/ to freedom!”

If the possum, the poem’s heartland phoenix, offers anything like transcendence, it is a transcendence that Kennedy seems to retract in the rest of the book. The poems in section four of Flow Blue are filled with grizzly deaths — butterflies suffocated in a slow, swirling death inside a science-project killing jar; a hysterectomy that leads to thoughts of “the haloed, faceless form/ of all the beloved children I no longer have to bear.” Even though the penultimate poem, “Rearview,” ends with speaker driving away from her horrific marriage, it begins with a drowned squirrel turning in the cattle’s water pail like Phlebas, the Phoenician sailor. In the course of the poem, the speaker notices that all her garden flowers are dead and that the only flower blooming is the “sloppy daisy” her daughter draws on the mist of the window as she looks back toward the farm and a world she is doomed to return to.

In the final poem, “Ewe,” the speaker remembers rescuing a lamb in a protracted birthing. Yet Kennedy refuses to allow the reader or herself any astonishment or joy at the rescue, dragged back as she is by all the brutal endings that have come before:

I remember her blood and birth-fluid
veining my arm to the elbow. I know
I could not look away from my skin,
glistening with the oily traces of all
the other ways this might have ended.

Flow Blue almost needs to come with a warning about the unrelenting darkness we, its readers, must suffer. Yet the book’s cover should have prepared us to expect that the bruises on the faux porcelain will overpower the “cobalt vines and flowers” in the end.

*  *  *

Lao-Tzu tells us that “Every being in the universe/ is an expression of the Tao” and “Each separate being in the universe/ returns to the common source.” Emöke B’Racz clearly embraces this principle, entitling her book Every Tree is the Forest and arranging the poems and illustrations in it with an awareness that diversity can be a source of unity.

B’Racz prefaces her book with an epigraph from Yeats: “If what I say resonates with you, it’s merely because we are both branches of the same tree.” The epigraph is well-chosen, not only because it echoes her Eastern philosophy but also because Yeats offers her the model of a poet who continuously and self-consciously reinvented himself. Never content to continue a successful poetic phase, Yeats was drawn by the anti-self he describes in A Vision into ongoing revisions and reversals. In each new poem and each of her paintings, B’Racz seems just as willing to keep recreating herself as an artist.

In letter six, Rilke asks the young poet, “Don’t you see how everything that happens is again and again a beginning…[how] starting is always so beautiful?” B’Racz, like Yeats, sees this beauty. Each poem in Every Tree is the Forest represents a new beginning — a new stanzaic form, a new subject, a new voice. Each poem in the volume is as distinctive as the trees of the title. What could be more different than the haunting aphorisms of poems like “The Fire” —

The marrow
remembers everything —

the streetwise idiolect of “Change That Adds Up Wrong Makes Little Holes and Great Love” —

fifteen neetfin ifften
bigger booger baby
left a hole in ifften’s heart —

the tight imagism of “Teething” —

A brass and wood skull
  full of teeth, intact,
channels where teeth line to root
  the face, the hair, ears —

the long-lined narrative of “Hungarian Childhood” —

The knocking came at midnight in wintertime.
The room was warm and at peace with the night.
  Two men brought in the cold under their hats,
grabbed most of the books and threw them into potato sacks —

and, startling us late in the volume, the megaphone shouts at the beginning of “504 Phone Calls” —


And yet the book is able to contain them all, these wildly varied poems, just as it able to encompass B’Racz’s own paintings scattered through the book — vibrant illustrations as varied in style as works by Chagall, Van Gogh, and Kandinsky. B’Racz knows, like Yeats, that the quicksilver self is never static and the world isn’t either. Each incarnation, she knows, is as true as the next.

If every poem and illustration in the book is the Forest that is Emöke B’Racz, the book might also have been entitled “Every Woman is the Forest.” The book opens its arms to a wide range of beloved women — lovers and friends (Kim, Sadhu, Katalin); her mother whose “eyes always kept a lifeline to her children”; grandmother Sajtos Zsofia, whom she paints in “lavender blue, ostrich grey.” The feminine moon surfaces in the poems‚ images and in the circles and wombs of the paintings. In “She Gave Them Slippers so They Could Dance to Their Hearts‚ Content,” she remembers four women in a writer’s group gathered around a square table, smoothing its corners into a circle of dance. She also dedicates poems to more celebrated women artists — Irish poet Eavan Boland; the Prussian, anti-war painter Kathe Kollowitz. And in the final poem of the book, she honors Sappho, Christine De Pisan, Louise Otto-Peters, Elsa Honing Fine, reminding herself and all women artists that the work they do is “Not for Ourselves Alone.”

Even though women dominate the book, by the end of the volume the reader can’t help but remember how many men B’Racz has celebrated in her poems: her Hungarian father who was dragged away in the night “like a falling leaf in the eye of the storm”; Grandpapa Imre with “a breath of angel hair”; poet Lucien Stryk, reading words “captured with butterfly nets” at Malaprops; the anonymous elderly gentleman dancing through the bookstore in unmatched clothes.

Throughout Every Tree is the Forest, B’Racz widens and widens her scope in a generosity reminiscent of Whitman’s expanding sympathies in “Song of Myself,” the way he gradually enfolds within himself man and woman, butcher-boy and quadroon girl, “wombs and…father-stuff,” and “Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.” In “504 Phone Calls,” B’Racz demands that we embrace male and female; gay, lesbian, and straight. She urges us to offer a blessing “of yellows, browns, blacks/ yes, those of the earth.” God, she reminds us, “is a wisp,/ a kindness that sparks between two people,/ lovers,/ mothers and daughters,/ brothers and sisters.” In fact, in a startling apocalyptic invocation, she prays to that wispy God to make “the human race to go extinct” if its members cannot stop plundering the literal forest in which they live, if they cannot learn to welcome all people into the human forest.

*  *  *

Rilke’s advice to the young poet is certainly not lost on Irene Honeycutt. In fact, she prefaces Waiting for the Trout to Speak with a passage from one of his letters: “be patient toward all that is unsolved in [our hearts] and…try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue… And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps [we] will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Waiting for the Trout to Speak is filled with patient poems, poems that let the reader breathe and think. In these poems, silences and absences speak as much as words and presence. Almost nothing seems in a hurry, and language moves with the leisurely pace of the seasons:

Where rivers once
pushed mountains up
November strolls,
shaking black pods
of coins,
plucks each tree.

(“The Collector”)

Often in these poems we get the poet pausing for her muse: “Not Knowing What to Listen for/ I wait. At the end of my flashlight’s beam,/ the bold stare of a husky.” In “To Paint the Portrait of a Baby Bird,” Honeycutt discovers that, like the painter, the poet must exercise patience if she is to achieve Keats’s negative capability:

And now
you must relinquish
any haste and listen
as the father cardinal
clicks messages
from a world
you can never

Even in the urgent moments of tragedy, things take their time. In “a lament for Beverly Suggs, 1924–1997,” “a bitter-sweet moon of March” is “climbing slowly higher,” winding its path over the house of a dying neighbor. In “The Escape, Honolulu,” two abused circus elephants go berserk, one stampeding before a rifleman fells it, its mate plunging into the ocean as if trying to “get back to Africa.” Yet Honeycutt’s reaction is slow and deliberate. She ends the poem with a hushed elegy for all the elephants in cages:

      legs chained they sleep,
lying on concrete, perhaps dreaming
of wild fields, rivers,
   leaves for burying their dead.

In her preface, Honeycutt tells us she learned this willingness to wait from her father and his fishing: “I see him holding the bait, his eyes squinting in the sun, his fingers patiently threading the anchor’s eye. I see him making the perfect cast, clearing the cypress stumps. He sits there for hours — patient like that — the way he sat in silence alone at night on the screened porch, smoking his Lucky Strikes…”

Honeycutt’s father acquired his patience “sitting in the row boat/ shrouded in silence/ beside the lily pads/ waiting for the trout to speak.” In his essay “The Bird and the Machine,” Loren Eiseley describes how traveling as a naturalist alone in a great desert, he studied a coiled rattlesnake and found “the sleepwalking tempo” of an earlier world: “the lower cadences of the frost, or the crystalline life that glistens pebbles, or shines in a snowflake, or dreams in the meteoric iron between the worlds.”

Honeycutt too observes animals and learns from them how to slow her own pulse. The “Signature Spider,” spinning its web, teaches her how to wait for a beloved’s message “sent today after/ months of distance.” (Notice how the unexpected linebreak after “after” makes us pause with her until the distance falls like a heavy shoe.) The injured owls at “The Raptor Center” — “blinded by someone’s bullet/ wounded by a car’s bumper” — teach her how to dream and drift through suffering:

     and now
       in dreams
           do they sift the darkness
                  through tilted wings?
A slight wind sprang up and blew a light white feather
     from the screech owl’s breast
                    past my shoulder.
     I reached to catch it.
              Let it drift…

In this poem and others (like “Early October”), Honeycutt scatters the words across the page, forcing the reader to take the time to gather them up. Throughout Waiting for the Trout to Speak, she experiments with form after form, trying to find the right container for her waiting, trying to discover the right shape to slow us down as we read. She tries couplets, long verse paragraphs, and the ongoing line of the prose poem in “Steep Ravine”: “the moment suspends itself like the hawk hovering above the cliffs.” In “The Sage,” the form she uses to suggest the Great Blue heron’s slow flight evolves in the course of the poem:

he moves like some mythical sage
              roaming his dominion
                     thinking things through
Beside a leafless tree
he waits
as if he has arrived
deliberately early
for an appointment

Here she moves from the staggered lines of waiting to masterful line breaks and then the compression of the final line in trying to capture the impatience (“deliberately early”) of the heron’s patience.

Perhaps Honeycutt achieves her greatest formal success in “Blessing.” In a book filled with modulating, slow-moving moons, this poem stacks single words, one above the other, to present a moon that refuses to be rushed:


Lao-Tzu asks his disciples, “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and water is clear?” “Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” Clearly for Irene Honeycutt and her poems, the quiet answer is “yes.”