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The Tribal Knot

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Tribal Knot

A Review of Naked as Eve

from The Pilot
by Sally Buckner


Reviewing a number of poetry journals recently, I decided I could probably divide the poems into three piles, the first two containing work which irritates me immensely.  Let me describe them and give samples.(To protect the guilty, I have changed some words,but kept the form and thesense of each.)        

1.
"Someone asked about the atmosphere of sadness        
And dismay that is built into these poems,        
About the personal events those feelings might conceal,        
And how they relate to my life."
         

An interesting thought, but this excerpt-and most of theremainder of this poem-is prose masquerading as poetry.  No imaginative language, no images, little attention to rhythm or word music. Why not just publish it as an essay?                                                 
2.      
"Reaching for the sugar:                
a)  he is slapped by the mother                
b)  he is slapped by the mother's dishrag                
c)  he is slapped by the mother's mother                
d)  hello.  he is inside."
        

This cutesy effort goes on for 16 stanzas, none of which make any more sense than these five lines. Comprised of seemingly random  phrases with no apparent connections, such writing  confounds coherence, snubs its nose at sense--and at the reader.        

Those are the two opposite ends of the current poetic spectrum.But then, thank goodness, there's the third pile. Poetry. I think it was W. H. Auden who said that poetry is"memorable language." Do you think you'll remember the previous examples beyond this evening, much less years from now?        

On the other hand, try this: 
Here in this retirement village the earth 
takes its sweet time spinning.  


Don't those two lines capture one aspect of life in a retirement village?  Don't they reverberate, in both sound and meaning? These lines are from "The Round Earth's Imagined Corners," one of the poems in Rebecca McClanahan's new collection, Naked as Eve. Turn back a few pages and you'll find "My Father's Cadillac." Here McClanahan describes the father who dreamed of a Cadillac, but 

kept denying himself  
for the line of boxy sedans 
and station wagons solid enough 
to hold six children, who soon dispersed 
to the convoy of usedBugs and Beetles 
filling our driveway like an army 
of hardshelled insects, each haggled 
at a discount from some widow or retiree, 
each housing in its driver's seat 
a teenager whose only desire was to peel away, a father's love 
bright as headlights in our eyes.
        

Now these lines ARE poetry. They lift commonplace experiences out of the daily smog and make them shine, so that we see them anew, maybe see the deepest truth in them for the first time.McClanahan has been accomplishing this little miracle through three well-received collections now.  This may be the strongest of them all. Novelist Gail Godwin often writes and speaks--passionately--about the need for human beings to pay attention, quoting Henry James: "Be one of those on whom nothing is lost."  Godwin and James would be pleased with McClanahan, for her attention is both broad and deep.Her poems often deal with small moments,tiny details. For example,"Husband at Six O'Clock":

The weight of his return
registers. The front gate 
clanks, the lock clicks.  
Of course it is raining.   
He wears overshoes 
and his father's dazed face. 
 

(Do we need to be told that the husband has not had a nice day?) In contrast, describing one of those days when we are suddenly aware of the blessings about us, of our own good fortune, she mentions a sister-in-law's lemon cake, the ability to function without tubes and machines, the pleasure of tasting the salt in our own well-earned sweat. Frequently she focuses on the meanings of words. Her poem "Making Love" begins 

Why make? I used to wonder.  
Is it something you have to keep on 
making, like beds or dinner, stir it up 
or smooth it down?  


She imagines 

It could be the name of a faraway 
city, end of a tired journey you take 
with some husband, your bodies chugging 
their way up the mountain, glimpsing 
the city lights and thinking, If we can 
keep it up, we'll make Love by morning.


Another poem muses on the fact that "pathology" and "poetry" share the same root. Still another examines "The Invention of Zero,"  with little blanks in the middle of lines signifying absence.  Another, "Invocation" provides six examples of persons crying out in extremity.  It ends, sadly: 

My dying aunt called simply, Somebody 
and a janitor sweeping the corridor  
outside her room answered. 


I've just provided tantalizing samples, but surely you can tell that this is poetry, pure and fine.  This poet can be intriguing without being obscure,witty without being cute, accessible without being obvious. Reading these works, one won't be surprised to learn that her poetry has won numerous awards. So have her fiction and essays.

Naked as Eve
More Reviews
  • "Poet and essayist Rebecca McClanahan is the master of finding unity in disparity." - The Charlotte Observer by Dannye Romine Powell
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