Phebe Davidson

The Thing about Second Books…

The Doom Weaver by Georgia A. Popoff. Charlotte, NC. The
Main Street Rag Publishing Co. 67 pages. $14.00 paper. ISBN:

Séance by Janice Moore Fuller. Oak Ridge, TN. Iris Press. 86
pages. $14.00 paper. ISBN 978-0-9161078-87-4.

The Highwayman’s Wife by Lynnell Edwards. Los Angeles, CA.
Red Hen Press. 99 pages. $17.95 paper. ISBN 978-1-59709-075-9.

Mother Land by Linda Parsons Marion. Oak Ridge, TN. Iris Press.
73 pages. $14.00 paper. ISBN 978-1-60454-203-5.

Need-Fire by Becky Gould Gibson. Bright Hill Press Poetry Award.
Treadwell, NY. Bright Hill press. 84 pages. $14.00 paper. ISBN

Observed fact: A first published book is hugely important in the life
of a poet. It is a serious achievement in a competitive field, and if
the book fares well the poet who wrote it will begin to be “noticed”
and “recognized” in ways that are impossible for a poet who
doesn’t have a book out. First books, at least in the United States,
are recognized and encouraged by a mind-boggling array of first
book competitions, some extremely prestigious and others less so.
Yet momentous as the appearance of that first book is, it is not
(unless the poet dies dramatically young or in dramatically moving
circumstances) a poetic career. Readers and critics alike look for the
next book or books, which almost always, even when the poet has
achieved a breakthrough in the writing, illuminate that initial effort.

This brings us that curious creature, the second published book of
poems. There are, to the best of my knowledge, only two “second
book” prizes in poetry in the United States. The first of these,
offered since 1954, is the James Laughlin Award sponsored by the
Academy of American Poets. This is not, however, an open manuscript
contest, as the already-published books must be submitted for
the prize by their publishers. The second, established in 2003, is the
Barnard Women Poets Prize, offered every other year for a second
book manuscript by a woman. There are, to be sure, a number of
contests (among them the Samuel French Morse, Green Rose,
Omnidawn, Samuel French Morse, and Levis Reading prizes) that
specify “first or second” book manuscripts or that require the poet
submitting a manuscript to have at least one prior book publication.

Because poets often have more than one manuscript in development,
working on two or more collections in the same span of
years, it is sometimes, as with Becky Gould Gibson (who had two
award winning books published in 2007), difficult to determine
with certainty which volume is actually the second book. That designation,
in Gould’s case, goes to Need-Fire, which received the
2005 Bright Hill Press Award. (Her other 2007 book, Aphrodite’s
Daughter, received the 2006 XJ Kennedy Award.) The shared 2007
copyright date is, therefore, misleading. What we can be sure of is
that second books are, by nature, a different proposition from the
first. After that first book, the poet is more experienced, moving
from the business of writing poems to the business of writing
books. The dew, so to speak, is gone from the rose, which (to
indulge a florid metaphor) can now open into full-blown glory. Or
not. When that second book comes out, it carries a heavy burden.
It lets us know that the poet is still in the game—that there is
stamina here as well as the initial creative flash. If one book is not
really a career, two books probably isn’t either, but sure as sunlight,
that second book marks the poet as a continuing presence in the
market and in the world of words. This is no small thing.


The Doom Weaver, Georgia Popoff’s second full-length book of
poems, is separated from the first (Coaxing Longing from Nectar,
Hale Mary Press, 1997) by eleven years. In this second book we
find the same sensibility at work, the same inexhaustible themes of
yearning, love (in many guises), and loss. The great difference is the
extent to which the work has been honed and refined by the additional
eleven years that Popoff has spent as a poet. Because she is
best known as a teaching and performance poet, it’s worth noting
that much of classroom work is performance, and that performance
poetry is conceived and polished not for a life on the printed
page but for live or recorded enactment. This makes it a somewhat
different creature than the “page poetry” endorsed by most journals
and academics. “Voice” in the flesh is not the same thing as
“voice” on the page, which I suspect explains the generally traditional
appearance of many of these poems—which for the most
part employ justified left margins and conventional stanzaic
arrangements, rather than the currently trendy ragged left margin
and page layouts that produce bafflingly dense or visually scattered
words, techniques that can often impede reading. That said, I add
that Georgia Popoff has a good sense of voice both on and off the
page, as can be readily seen in the book’s three sections: “The
Geometry of Sound,” “Three-Faced Moon,” and “What Remains.”

“The Geometry of Sound” begins with a poem that tells us “The
cosmos was settling into a simple A+B certainty. / Every house sang
Houston’s static love ballad. / Crackly voices seeped through the
screens like incense, / and love was dense as geometry” (“The
Algebra of Poetry/ The Geometry of Sound”). This begins a series
of poems that deal with particular pieces of the past, large and
small milestones in life that might otherwise be lost. Of a greatgrandmother,
we learn that “[h]er myth is a back-room whisper. /
Only one picture survives. / Before my first gasp/ she turned her
back/ / on a long death” (“Matrilineage”). Of the poetic speaker,
we discover that she is still in love with the music of her youth,
“[s]eeking the sanctuary of a bass line, the chop of a crisp guitar”
(“Night Train”). The tenuous quality of memory is not lost on this
poet, who asks “Which day had he stopped beyond my view/ to
mark our love in fresh cement?” and then acknowledges that the
initials are “long since/ suffocated by moss” (“The Reunion of
False Starts”). The book is, at this point, a recognition of what has
been lost, like “the mother belt I’ve never worn; / how satellites
weep beside me” (“The Implausible Diameter of the Moon”).

“Three-Faced Moon” explores the poet’s consciousness in midlife,
describing the self as serpent, “hood puffed in warning, / left eye
gazing at the future, / skin like boondoggle, / fangs an omen of
resolve” (“Hog-Nose Adder),” and examining the action of a knife
on a ripe peach, how “a tiny flap will yield/ a velvet weeping heart
(“Tender Parings”). When Popoff writes “I have condensed like a
black hole,” (“Molting Season”) the reader cannot help but understand
that life compresses understanding even as it adds to knowledge
and experience. In the beautifully executed pantoum, “Sole
Survival” we find the poet’s sensibility strong and sure, “I sift fact
from fiction, / seek unlikely resolve, confounded for years by irrational
loss, / still I move outward…” The book’s closing section
“What Remains” shows readers the poet’s command of her
medium in a sequence of poems on passion and the hungers it
leaves. These are poems “full of language, thick as apricot jam”
(“The Hopeful Dialect of Marriage”) and spiced with “the way
words tattoo/ a blue love in summer weather” (“Hunger”).


Séance, the second full-length book of poems by Janice Moore
Fuller, amplifies her first (Sex Education, 2004) in wonderful ways.
Her love of form, already clear in Sex Education, becomes in this
second volume a versatile dexterity with forms ranging from the
spare little minute to the pantoum, from the octave to the newly
invented decrescendo. Because Fuller also writes accomplished free
verse, this formalist bent serves her particularly well as she weaves
a series of poems exploring death and afterlife, the longing of the
living for the dead and, perhaps, of the dead for the living. Fuller’s
premise here is that the dead, who indeed have a physical afterlife
in the genes their survivors carry, also persist in memory and in
emotions felt and recalled. In these poems, a keen fascination with
death is explored by a quiet, seductive imagination that embodies
tremendous poetic strength.

The book’s first section of poems is rooted in childhood memories.
Here, Fuller speculates that the dead “see us like this: upside down,
combing what we should shoeing, smirking when we/ should be crying,
/ laughing at all the wrong parts” (“What the Dead See”). Other
poems remind us that death is stronger, perhaps, than we want it to
be. Of her father’s remembered sedan, she writes, “Jesus never rises
from its shiny black hood” (“Daddy’s Bonneville, Easter 1956”). The
poems, of course, constitute an afterlife of what has happened, and
some are ghost-haunted as well. In a minute titled “Mama Never
Braided My Hair,” Fuller demonstrates how childhood reality haunts
her narrative present: “tonight I lean/ into her clean/ imagined lap, /
these uncaptured/ / strands waiting for her to plait them. / The dark
comes in/ folds, slips over/ hair, under fingers.”

The book’s second section speaks mostly of life in the present.
There is a desire for the past: “The houses we leave still need us/
Pantries. Porticoes. / Those transoms float / vagrant plans, hopes”
(“The Houses We Leave”). Here, the poet writes an extended
minute, which doubles the scope of a sixty-syllable, three-stanza
form to twice what the original form contained, so that the poem
that would have ended with “each bulb dangles/ lonely, lightless/
old without us” now moves forward to “Gables/ dream us back,
brass keys in our grasp” (“The Houses We Leave”). The poems
move from abandoned houses through abandoned love affairs and
marriage, to life in a contemporary city and a dance with a mysterious
figure who may an imagined lover or even death himself, “tall
and waterproof, / used to letting fanciful thoughts / / slide off. When
he asked me/ to dance, I was fearful” (“Last Night Dancing on the
Patio”). The third group of poems, still in the narrative present,
enacts the reach of the living as they seek contact with the dead
whose lives are still, genetically and emotionally, entwined with
their own. The poem titles, “Weeding Sylvia’s Grave, Heptonstall,”
“Civic Cemetery, Spoleto,” “White Nights at Polli Talu,” become a
series of meditations in whose lines “death sneaks in like breath”
(“Minutes in the Galapagos”). In the world of this book, we would
all ask the dead, if we only knew how, “Do you have anything to
tell us?” (“Ouija”). Wonderfully, the book closes with a musical
metaphor: the piano is untouched, the damper pedal held down;
like the past that resonates within us, “the strings still hum”
(“Séance on the Way to Stradone”).


The Highwayman’s Wife, Lynnell Edwards’s second full book of
poems, is, in a way, a follow up to her 2004 book The Farmer’s
Daughter. Both books have titles that define the central female
character by her connection with a man, but The Highwayman’s
Wife has a sharper edge, a fuller sense of ambiguity that incorporates
past and present. The poems snap and sizzle their way off the
page, an effect demonstrated to startling effect in the singleton
poem that opens the collection. “I will rob you, lover. Cut your
purse, / pilfer the gold coins stitched inside your shirt /when I reach
for a kiss, ungirdle your bright sword/ for my own device, whirl
away into the highland night” (“Sonnet for the Highwayman”)
Thus, in language that is simultaneously contemporary and slightly
arcane (when, after all, did we last think of purse cutting as a serious
risk?), Edwards creates an entire set-up for her book in one
fourteen line burst: “And you thinking this the safe house, the
happy way/ station on the lonely road, the warm light / glowing in
the stone tower just for you, oh no. / Fierce is my clan, shifting,
wild. The youngest daughters/ taught to lie, steal, before they can
read. No domestic/ lore…” (“Sonnet for the Highwayman”). This
is the voice a fierce, determined woman who will have her way in
the world regardless of cost. The book’s first section, titled “Leave
No Trace,” moves readers from January to May with a series of
strategically placed epigraphs from The Shepherd’s Calendar. In this
springtime movement, the narrator develops a number of personae,
but whether she is Medusa directing Perseus to “get the mirror, / the
reflective shield…/ But do not look upon this; you will not live to
tell” (“Suite for Wives, I. Me the Wife, Versions of Medusa”) or
Helen, inscribing a note that says “Listen, Bitch: / I wanted out.
Out / of that palace house, prison/ of Spartan glint and despair; / out
from under the sexless old man” (“Suite for Wives, II. Love,
Helen”), she is an undeniable force.

The highwayman himself appears in the book’s second section, a
sonnet sequence titled “Enter the Highwayman.” He arrives, in the
book’s center, as an interpolation outside of regular time. The
epigraphs from The Shepherd’s Calendar, which supply a seasonal
measure for the first and third parts of the book, are absent from
the highwayman’s textual ground. Here, yesterday’s footpad and
thief becomes today’s dissolute and desperate traveler, who “hears
the rafters and the hinges hissing go/No road is calling, no lover
taunting, no/ unmade fortune pulls him from his house/ to abandon
favorite chair, faithful hound, just the shutters and windows
mouthing go” (“Go”). The third section, “Local Concerns,” carries
us from June to December and also brings us fully into the present
century, replete with “family, big house, career, / committed friendships,
recreational sports, and unaccounted/ others: exquisite sweet
and dark. I am domestic / / and fabulous…” (“In My New
Expanded Life”). In this world, the highwayman’s wife shows herself
in poems with titles like “Planting Dahlias with a Pick-Axe,”
and “I Gave My Love a Cell Phone; or, Technology Won’t Help
You Now,” leaving us, at last, with the unself-consciously lovely
“Snow Day”: “and now the world grown yours to turn. Lovely/
you think, the barren trees, the winter bird; lovely you sing, as she
welcomes you into the warm.” The Highwayman’s Wife takes life
from the movement of the seasons and the surge of language itself.
The reading is a momentous ride.


In Mother Land, Linda Parsons Marion gives her readers the distillation
of two lives—a mother and a daughter, in language that rivets
with its intensity. Her 1997 collection Home Fires, gave readers
a series of poems whose lyrical brilliance has not faded. In this new
collection, that brilliance is focused more closely on a single relationship.
Here, Marion writes of a divorced mother who suffers
most of her life from undiagnosed bi-polar disorder and of the
daughter who, unable to endure the agonies of living with her
mother, seeks shelter with her father and his second wife, a stepmother
who, unlike the “wicked” stereotype, is a warming presence
in the daughter’s life. This emotional turmoil is set with great
care in two distinct but related contexts: the daughter’s growth to
maturity and the cyclical resilience of a gardener’s relationship with
whatever ground she inhabits.

Because Mother Land begins with a single poem, “Credo,” set
entirely in italics, the journey from girlhood to womanhood is
firmly set in the reader’s mind.

          I believe in the bicycle of forgiveness, the potholes
          barely missed and jarred over, stickiness of new-laid tar
          sucking my speed to a crawl. I believe in silver spokes,
          unswerving wheels bouncing me along, though the way
          forward is fogged in false hope. I believe in the way—

This beginning is both brave and fraught with risk, seeming almost
to tell us too much, too didactically and too soon

          …I believe
          grace will carry us there if we lean into the hairpin curves,
          pedal hard, in life of after, beyond the blue rise.

Marion, though, is not an ordinary poet, and quickly moves to a
different sphere. Each of the books four untitled sections is introduced
by an epigraph from the work of Theodore Roethke. This is
a tribute both to Roethke (a poet whose work is profoundly connected
with the earth and growing things) and to Marion’s best
readers, who will know without having to look anything up who is
being quoted and how his words establish the tenor of Mother
Land. While Marion is certainly an accessible poet, she is also a
poet whose work encompasses both the Zen circularity of the bicycle
wheel and the spinning earth where “[e]ven the dirt kept
breathing a small breath” (Roethke, “Root Cellar”). The poems in
this section seize us with the residue of childhood, “mounds of
what might have beens, only ifs” (“My Inner Earth”), the flight “to
my idea of heaven on earth/ to my stepmother whose wings feather
down/ to cover me” (“Eleven”). Here also we find the bereft
mother, “You can’t run from blood. My eye/ is on every hair of
your head, / little sparrow, first blood of mine” (“Running from
Blood”) and the daughter’s years-later remembrance “You stood at
the sink and lit the soft corners” and “[e]ven your pincurls/ and
brief joy burned, baby, burned” (“Letter to My Mother”). The poet
also supplies a stunning gardener’s metaphor, “tough-skinned old
mother/ rooted in meanness, clinging to a hard heart” (“Hellebore
Divided”) and a grandmother who “cooked country, lard/ and bitter
greens” whose “steam under my ribs/ carried me through the
pinewoods of childhood” (“Rosemary for Remembrance”).

The book’s second and third sections are an unsettling blend of
reflection and event, of a daughter’s movement into full adulthood,
her mother’s continual if interrupted presence in that journey, and
the daughter’s own advance into middle age. With the narrator, a
reader sees “my mother/ in short shorts, turned to the stare of
Sunday sun. / A sweaty Pabst cooled her copper thigh, then cheek, /
then brow” and sees as well the daughter who “jumped from the
preacher’s car, afire/with the Savior…” (“Repossessed”) and the
“tarantella’s/mad playing” (“For My Brother, Who Did Not See”)
of the mother’s second marriage. This daughter must learn early
that she “cannot camouflage/my smallness, braid my hair into
cambium and bleed/ yellow-gold” (“Above the Esso”). The daughter’s
hard-learned lesson: “All we have is disputed/ ground in the
here and now” (“All That Glitters”) meets her great wondering
question: “What stayed her hand from razor or overdose those
years/ the demons stormed her brain” and the deep wish for the
chance “to be lifted up, unawares, / in this daunting life or the
next” (”Savior”). Mother Land closes with poems of full maturity—
poems about a late wedding, a father’s easy travels, and
always, of course, the gardens that are root and ground, best
metaphor for the life in verse this book presents. Richly allusive
and intertextual, this is profoundly intelligent work that fuses the
personal and the universal, illuminating both.


Becky Gould Gibson’s Need-Fire, presumably in process during the
same period that produced Aphrodite’s Daughter, takes full advantage
of the scholarly experience that fires her historical/biographical
imagination. Unlike the other second books reviewed in this essay,
Need-Fire is not divided into discrete sections, proceeding instead
from the beginning of the central character’s life to the removal of
her bones from the Minster at Whitby to Glastonbury. The character
in question is a grand-niece of the Saxon King Edwin, Hild (St.
Hilda), who lived from 615 to 680, and who was serving at the
time of her death as the Abbess of Whitby. Because so little is
known of Hild, and because the language has changed so much
since her day, Gibson faced the double task of imagining a credible
daily life and set of emotions for her subject and then rendering
that life in verse that would seem to have come from Hild’s own
pen. To do this, Gibson adapted the Old English half-line style of
versification and restricted her vocabulary choices, as far as possible,
to words that have come into modern English from the Saxon
Hild would have recognized. To say that the book also embodies a
feminist consciousness is perhaps too simplistic, but Gould’s work
here clearly delineates the authority and restrictions allotted to
those abbesses who were well placed and supported by powerful
male relatives.

The book begins with Hild’s mother remembering a dream that
heralded her daughter’s birth, “You slip from my grip laughing/
Hild Hild/ child with a will never settled” (“Berguswith’s
Dream”) and moves quickly to Hild’s decision to establish a
Christian mission in Northumbria. A series of epistolary poems to
Hild’s sister, titled “Hild to Hereswith at Chelles” and dated, serve
to reveal Hild’s belief that she was fitted to the job “[I]t takes a
hard-headed woman           like me/ to keep track           of the purse/ hold
on           when bread runs out” (“…10 October 647"), to make clear
her determination to “make kin of my kind           beat out my life/
among sea-swallow           mew” (“…10 October 647”). These letters
also bestow glimpses of achievement:

          Here we are           sister
          on the uttermost           edge of England
          clinging to           this headland
          like gannets           our wings tucked in
          against the wind           Sandstone cliffs
          drop into the North Sea           Soul never
          seemed so wide           as it does here
                                        (“…30 November 658”)

and dramatize the power of this landscape where Hild’s parents
had themselves been pagans. “Morning’s frost           bleaches the
moors/ I write slowly           my fingers/ swollen with cold.           Quick-
winged sparrows/ arrow in           from the east / By noon           the
mist burns off / so naked are we before God” (“…30 November
658”). There is doubt: “Does God moan for his children/wind
his lung’s longing/ I keep up my mood           for the others/ yet inch
by inch           the edge comes nearer/ as cliffs slip           into the sea”
(“…30 November 658”). Hild’s great lesson emerges: “What I’ve
learned           keep learning/ rules give us           rooms of time/ to
breath in           Without rule we are lost” (“…5 February 660”)

Many of the poems are haunting in their sensual and sexual beauty.
We share a young monk’s observations as a solar eclipse draws to a
close, “But now           light comes back/ sun’s scythe           widens/ cuts
down night           Sheep/ creep out of byres           cows/ shake off darkness”
(“The Last Shall Be First”), a young nun’s longing for her
God “I’ve tracked you           everywhere/ over this           white waste/ sick
with love           with wanting you” (“Aelfflaed to God”), another
cloistered woman’s frustration with convent life: “At least /we won’t
die           in childbirth/ though we may die           of boredom” (“Osburg
to Aldhelm”), and even a plague victim’s dying vision: “Dark spins
on its axle/ pinches           my throat” (“The Black Bite”). Hild is
finally interred as a holy woman, and her bones, when they are
moved from her home abbey to Glastonbury, tell us clearly

         We know names           we know history
          we know life           to the marrow
                                        (“What the Bones Know”).

Gibson’s achievement here, complete with scholarly apparatus, is

Each of these five books is rewarding in its own right. All are well
constructed of poetry that pleases eye and ear, and all become, in
their reading, richly layered texts that weave past and present
together in eloquent, powerful ways. I have observed elsewhere
that the best books are more than the sum of their parts (individual
poems, sections, even epigraphs). Georgia Popoff, Janice Moore
Fuller, Lynnell Edwards, Linda Parsons Marion, and Becky Gould
Gibson, each in her own way, demonstrate the truth of that contention.
The thing about second books, when they are really good
(as these books are), the best thing of all, is that they leave me
wanting more from the poets—more poems, more books—more
of the exquisite pleasure that comes only from this kind of reading.