J. W. Bonner

No Ideas But in People

A Review of New Books by Cathy Smith Bowers, Marilyn Kallet,
Diane Gilliam Fisher, and Jane Mayhall

A Book of Minutes by Cathy Smith Bowers. Oak Ridge, TN: Iris
Press, 2004. 81 pp. $13 paper. ISBN 0-916078-58-2.

Circe, After Hours by Marilyn Kallet. Kansas City, Missouri:
BkMk Press, 2005. 94 pp. $13.95 paper. ISBN 1-886157-51-0.

Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher. Florence, MA: Perugia
Press, 2004. 88 pp. $15 paper. ISBN 0-9660459-7-1.

Sleeping Late on Judgment Day by Jane Mayhall. New York:
Knopf, 2004. 96 pp. $22 cloth. ISBN 1-4000-4174-0.

Four collections of poems by four women, all of whom are extensively
published (periodicals, including the pages of this magazine,
as well as books). Most of the poems in the collections are relatively
short, often no more than a page. Nonetheless, there is an
accomplished range of voices and forms found in these pages, an
earned sense of life and possibility and mortality.

Cathy Smith Bowers has hit on a form that allows her to present
intense, charged, lyrical moments. Each poem, as Bowers explains
in the preface, is written “in a form called the minute, a poem consisting
of sixty syllables with a syllabic count of 8, 4, 4, 4–8, 4, 4,
4–8, 4, 4, 4” and rhyming couplets. Bowers’s preface indicates she
was attracted to the form for its hybrid of “Elizabethan sonnet and
early-Eastern haiku.” The collection is structured as a Book of
Hours, “arranged in accordance with the eight canonical hours of
the day.” Thus, there is the arc of “traditional drama” coupled
with the movement of a chapel service or even of prayer in what
Bowers describes as “prayer-like poems.”

The individual poems hint at narrative but are more like a single
pearl than a functional strand. In the opening section of poems,
titled “Matins,” reside a number of pieces titled after herbs:
“Sorrel,” “Thyme.” There is a sense of the history of these herbs
that carries to the present time of the poem’s writing, a quality
found, for example, in Jeffery Beam’s exemplary Jargon Society collection
Dame Kind.

Several of the poems in the next section, “Lauds,” read almost as if
limericks: playful, humorous. The poem “To St. Lucy of Syracuse,
Protectress of Writers” ends with a pun, playing off writing: “they
thrust / a dagger in / your throat, and that / was all she wrote.”
The next poem, “To St. Brendan the Navigator, Protector of
Sailors,” ends on a more somber note that suggests a lack of selfawareness
in humans, an inherent flaw that keeps our dreams and
ambitions hidden: “Who among us has not tossed for / years

… // searching for some strange and perfect / world where we
might / begin anew, / unaware there // is always a veil that hides the
/ paradise we / seek, that always, / we are the veil.” Perhaps Bowers
is commenting on The Tempest or even speaking at a more individual
level to the American Dream.

Bowers posits meaning in a single word or its very absence. “How I
Became an Existentialist” is wonderfully clever. Adult philosophy
emerges from a childhood valentine. The poem presents a young
girl who has received no valentines. A boy walking home behind
her rips a valentine in two: “The part / he handed me / said only,
Be.” I love the boy’s gesture and the weight that the solitary word
carries in this valentine and existential context. Similar strengths
are found in the erotically charged poems of the “Sext” section—
another pun: “Anatomy of a Southern Kiss” with its orgasmic “O,
O, O” or “In Praise of Bald Men” with the verbal play of bald
heads and giving head.

Death suffuses these poems as well. Bowers writes at the beginning
of her preface about her brother’s death from AIDS. Many of the
poems at the end of the collection deal with his death and the aftermath
of death—which is, no surprise, the living go on living: new
lovers, tending to the earth. Bowers has written a collection titled A
Book of Minutes, but she has written a collection that is filled with
the moments of lived life.

Kettle Bottom offers a series of poems in a variety of forms that are
connected to a single subject (West Virginia coal mines and the
strikes of the early 1920s). These poems offer a different perspective
on the 1920s than the Harlem Renaissance poems of Langston
Hughes or the novels of Sinclair Lewis boosterism or Fitzgerald
money and flappers. There is no Roaring Twenties in these miner
family lives other than the life-consuming roar of the coal mine’s
maw. Fisher’s collection is structured as if a Spoon River Anthology
collection of coal miner voices—the miners, their wives and widows,
their sons and daughters, their preacher, their bosses, their
children’s teacher—and Fisher employs various forms for the
poems—journals, school reports, and letters. Kettle Bottom
describes a world of hard-scrabble daily existence, where death is a
constant, either by a cave-in or in the early deaths from diseased
lungs or the spiritual death of grinding poverty. Indeed, the very
title of the collection denotes death: a kettle bottom is a “petrified
tree trunk / buried in the mountain, two, three hundred / pounds.
Drops through the mine roof…. Kills a man / just like that.”

The seasons of the year serve as the collection’s structure, and the
book begins with a bang—literally: a mine explosion. Husbands
and sons are identified by toes, a scarred ear, a patched shirt. The
poem’s ungrammatically astute narrator, 23 year old Maude Stanley,
has lost her husband; in words that certainly develop a theme, she
states, “It is true that it is the men that goes in [the mine] but it is us
[wives] / that carries the mine inside.” In another poem a married
sister warns her younger sister, Hazel, from her intended, since this
man plans to work in the mines as does the woman’s husband. The
sister ends her letter to Hazel with an image of love’s heat burned to
ash: “when Clayton kisses me now / I don’t taste nothing but coal.”
There’s the taste of death in that kiss.

Fisher’s diction and turns of phrase ground these voices: “bruted to
pieces,” “warm as pie.” Some of the poems are as pungent and
moving as a blues tune. “Pearlie Asks Her Mama What Poontang
Means” ends with a kind of blues lyric: “All my life / I have tried
so hard to be so good, and now / it is all for naught, for them men,
/ them men has put murder in my heart.” “Naught” and “heart”
are a slant rhyme, and the repetition of “them men” is an emphatic
kind of hiccup in the child’s thinking, a catching of her breath
amidst tears or anger or frustration or outrage, a verbal twist as
mental prelude of the knife the child wishes to steal.

The coal mines have begrimed man’s angelic natures. The husband’s
shirt in “Violet’s Wash” is marked with coal dust “right
where the wings would have folded.” The owner of the mine in
“Beautiful, the Owner Says” sees the grime and desolation of the
mining town during the day but finds the scene infernally beautiful
at night. These miners’ lives are hell.

Fisher’s collection provides a historical frame for the collection’s
events. The patchwork narrative approach—journals, sermons,
conversations, letters—and multiple perspectives create a powerful
and compelling narrative drive.

Marilyn Kallet’s Circe, After Hours displays some links to the personal
content of Bowers’s collection and the historical content of
Fisher’s collection. As with Bowers, Kallet writes about lovers and
marriages, parents and friends. But rather than Fisher’s historical
mine wars, Kallet addresses the subject of the Holocaust in several
poems at the end of the collection.

The enchantress alluded to in the title is certainly a part of the
book’s subject matter. Kallet writes as frankly as any writer I have
read about the allure of younger students, the crushes we feel
amidst so much beauty and energetic learning. “Trout,” for example,
depicts an older woman attracted to a younger student. Kallet
addresses directly some of the social hypocrisies connected to older
women and older men vying for more youthful lovers. One of her
older male friends is appalled by her crush, yet he had an affair
with a “teenaged painter” who, as Kallet jokingly describes, “could
only come underwater. / For Bill, that was a summer / of Great
Lakes.” That wry, amused voice is found in many of these poems.
Then the poem concludes: “Think of anything but a young man /
with his looks and his poetry / his music and his crooning / his
painting and his and his / mouth-watering / trout.” The stutter
(“and his and his”) covers her lust in a Freudian transformation to
the socially polite fish. The woman’s desire is dressed rather than
nakedly revealed.

Many poems collude with the reader as active participant. In the collection’s
opening poem, “Warning,” a marvelous sequence of negations,
an inspired send up of commandments, Kallet addresses the
subject of swimming but later addresses the act of writing and of an
audience. Indeed, Kallet allows that the poem might begin to “lure
[the reader] in.” The enchantress-poet has turned the reader into a
fish, caught us with her hook, and keeps us flapping through the
entire collection. Again in “No Makeup,” Kallet figuratively undresses
her history and self for the reader. The poem ends, “at fifty, I love /
nakedness / in my face and lines, / and in your hands, dear reader.”
Kallet catches the reader in her very hands, words made flesh. In
poem after poem Kallet frankly addresses aging, but there is no lessening
of the spirit, of delight in physical beauty or song.

Poets and musicians are prominently named in many of Kallet’s
poems: Dante, Robert Johnson, Whitman, Dylan, Pinsky, Lucinda
Williams. “Great Poet” appears to mock the conventional, serious,
“great poet” attitude; Kallet describes this demeanor as “composed,
/ understated, / subdued. Never let personality leak / into a
syllable.” “Leak” suggests Kallet may have a T. S. Eliot type in
mind. Then Kallet shifts the tone, and she echoes Lou Reed’s line
“My life was saved by rock ’n roll.” For Kallet the saving grace is a
Lucinda Williams song. Then another troubadour: Hazel Dickens.
From a poetic credo of restraint she moves to a credo of excess personality
and flesh: “I must be animal.” But there are limits; the
poem ends with her southern background and sense of decorum
and restraint reasserting itself: “Still, I found myself unable to say /

The collection’s final section connects poems depicting southern racial
attitudes and the civil rights movement with poems about the
Holocaust. As with so many of the earlier poems about family, lovers,
and the death of parents, Kallet nonetheless creates poems that affirm
life and that express a gratitude for all of life’s experiences.

Jane Mayhall, who attended Black Mountain College, is a generation
older than the other three poets reviewed. Again, loss is a
prominent theme in her poems; the second and final section of the
book, titled “Love Poems,” concerns her late husband, Leslie
George Katz, publisher of the Eakins Press, one of the premier photography
presses in the United States. Many of the poems in the
collection address poets (Auden, Wallace Stevens) or books, and
several of the poems are elegies to her contemporaries: Theodore
Roethke, Lincoln Kirstein, and James Still.

Mayhall posits an important aesthetic point in “Experience”: “As
soon as you try to define, / it gets lost.” Mayhall’s compression of language
is evidenced in these two lines. She also speaks to the elusive
quality of capturing experience, though the next two lines—“If you /
don’t define, that gets lost too.”— address the need for the attempt.

Wisdom of age suffuses many of the lines in these poems; they
become aphorisms: “Old age is like being / an emigrant, // the tincture
of everlastingness / affecting vision and surmise” and “Only in
error’s significant pause is there / maximum freedom. Trying to
imagine everything / over again.”

The “Love Poems” section is resonant with deep affection and love.
“Flesh and Nature” ends on a timeless note that echoes the ancient
Greek poets: “And nature didn’t save us, / this wide-eyed grief /
stalk.” Sorrow is made material with the image of the plant, but
there is also the sense of death’s stealth, stealing her love out of
their Edenic life together. And the poem “Name” also makes the
loss of the husband palpable: “I tawdrily bring you into the conversation
/ whenever I can. // Want to fill up on your name, / thoughts
cup into it.” Her dead husband’s name is a palliative drink, a blessing
from the chalice—art’s magic, though imperfect, power.

I am impressed by these mature poets who ground their work in
rich lodes of personal experience. They understand the personal
side of the historical context. So much of history is taught, aptly
enough, through concepts and intellectual movements. Yet these
poets find the individuals living what we later call the historical
context, those who make the daily stories of an era, the substance
of the history they wish to narrate. “No ideas but in things,”
William Carlos Williams once wrote. These poets would not
amend. Amen.