Review by Rebecca Ellis
by Pamela Garvey
Finishing Line Press
Post Office Box 1626
Georgetown, KY 40324
2008, 27 pp., $12.00
If only I could’ve pinned the angel down.
But the angel is winds
sweeping through fingers like sand,
each grain gliding coldly up the arms
into the frantic heart,
then the seed tumbled through my body. Released,
I turned suddenly, as if the angel had a face,
could be pointed to in a line of men.
I wish I’d written that. It’s the ending of Pamela Garvey’s poem, “The Annunciation” — one of many breathless moments in her chapbook, Fear, that pulled me back for another reading of a poem, and another, and another.
“The Annunciation” takes on motherhood, womanhood and religion from the point of view of the woman who experiences it all, perhaps more directly than anyone else ever has. In drawing the poem from that point of view, Garvey goes so far inside the experience that each thought, each physical sensation is utterly real and fully imagined. Mary is as real as your own sister, just as physical and fragile and strong. She confronts the tangible shock of the angel, and faces forces larger than herself that invite her to something important but at the price of her own volition. She is surprised, a victim and survivor who never for a moment loses her ability to face the experience and never backs away from her power to speak about it, to declare it for what it is. And it is both more and less than she might have expected.
Garvey delivers a portrait of the woman and of the transformation, and the portrait is accessible and astonishing. The woman in this poem is at a unique junction of history and her own life, and she experiences it as Everywoman–simultaneously personal and universal.
Fear includes portraits of many faces of power—celestial power, political power, the neighborhood bully, a gang of young boys, a parent ineptly trying to navigate the cruelties of the natural world. Power is blind in every case, bent on its own purposes and not on its anonymous victims. But under the influence of Garvey’s pen, the victims speak to us, clearly and memorably. The victim’s voice is one discovering its isolation, and its tempered steel.
Worrying over a sick child, the speaker in a poem half-pleads, half-protests, faces her fears but doesn’t back down under the power of the all-powerful even as she offers her prayers: “…You, greedy, / never wombed master, / don’t burrow into the fist of my heart.”
Garvey is able, in poem after poem, to deftly locate the intersection of the forces of conflict and lay it bare. These poems are so thought-drawn, examining the filaments of an argument and testing each one, that I found myself puzzling through a series of philosophical questions after reading the chapbook. What is faith? Why is violence random? Or is it? Are we all simultaneously both victim and potential persecutor?
Looking at a simple log decaying, Garvey examines every surface of it with a philosopher’s probing touch. Even on the forest floor, she finds and exposes the struggle of the individual pitted against larger and ominous forces. Here’s the poem in its entirety:
How long before it becomes pure abstraction?
Hastening, ants hollow one end for sawdust. Speck by speck,
they bite away rinds of pine
they carry in crumbs to the edge, dropping them
to the hill of wood below, their colony soft as sand.
How long has it taken them to mine these few inches inward?
How much do they need, these thousands
scurrying into black lines
to haul boulders of bark, reddish
and malleable, rich in minerals, slow
to decay, yet giving way
to the rush, to the industry of darkness.
The work of carrying the philosophical questions is done by the music in the lines, the craft carefully attending to the collective noise of consonants and vowels, the speed and drag of language doing its job and doing it well.
Fear has a wide-ranging view of the world, moving easily from poems about parenthood to poems about dogs to poems about politics. Garvey is able to locate her voice in interpersonal and in political situations. She is compelling in her poems about El Salvador and Argentina and their complex politics–the poems are written from inside that experience, and not in the voice of a mere visitor. The title poem, “Fear,” is set in El Salvador, and is the perfect vehicle for Garvey’s ability to knit the patterns of larger forces into the gritty details in front of her:
. . . Fear is about the past
riding the backs of the future
when the soldiers dream about smiling.
Some people find salves. One soldier
nurses dogs: many burned to bald patches,
one with a stomach bleeding
from food laced with gunpowder.
Eventually the dog will lick his hand, sleep by his side;
the dog would bite the man that would wound him.
Still, at his heels a thin wire disappears
and he can hear, or thinks he hears,
the girl on La Cruz whom they had raped many times . . .
who sang strange evangelical songs
and she had kept right on singing, too, even after
they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest . . .
It’s hard to tell if the gritty details or the larger meanings are more frightening, and perhaps that’s the point of how seamlessly Garvey has woven them together. These poems are not ones you read and walk away from. For both their lovely craft and the questions they raise, the poems will call you back again and again.
For those interested in the craft of poetry, Garvey has the potential to be a poet’s poet, her poems examples of what art can do in the world. Her attention to line, form, and the basics of poetry make her work an open textbook for other writers. Here, for example, are the line-ending words from “How It Works”–you can discern from the end words alone both the theme and the full emotional arc of the poem:
Looking at the words in pairs (the poem is in two-lined stanzas) you can also hear the careful attention to sound in each pair (enough / tongue, or mid-dip / flickers). Almost all the poems in this chapbook easily bear such careful scrutiny.
I was also intrigued by the sequencing of poems within the chapbook. Each one seemed to lead to the next. Even where subject matter differed wildly, the questions raised or the type of language used or the set of images ending one poem seemed to open up the next one quite naturally. This ordering provided a very satisfying sense of completion.
The only poem where I did not see this excellent sequencing happen was, oddly, the second poem in the collection, “Pine Log” (appearing in full earlier in this review). Much as I like that poem and consider it among the best in the collection, the voice and stance in it interrupt the flow between the poems, and it does not fit into the chapbook as naturally as the others. It shares a common theme and set of questions, but the voice in it seems so much further distanced from its subject and so much more explicit about the questions that the effect–in context–is slightly jarring.
Fear was a finalist for the New Women’s Voices Competition, and is part of a larger full-length manuscript. Based on the maturity and craft seen here, this is definitely a worthwhile read and a promising prelude to that planned full-length book.
Rebecca Ellis edits Cherry Pie Press, publishing a series of poetry chapbooks by Midwestern women poets. She has published poems in RHINO, Natural Bridge, Quiddity, sweetlit.com and qarrtsiluni.com.