February 20, 2009

Review by Brian Spears

WAKING STONE
by Carole Simmons Oles

The University of Arkansas Press
201 Ozark Avenue
Fayetteville AR 72701
ISBN 1-55728-825-9
2006, 99 pp., $16.00
www.uapress.com

When I was in my first year of the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, the visiting poet Dave Smith said of one of my poems, “That’s an Arkansas title.” He explained to me that two of the founding voices of the Arkansas program, Miller Williams and James Whitehead, had a tendency to write personae poems with long titles that provided information about the dramatic situation. Whitehead’s “Long Tour: The Country Music Star Explains Why He Put Off the Bus and Fired a Good Lead Guitar in West Texas” is a good example of that.

Waking Stone by Carole Simmons Oles, published by the University of Arkansas Press, doesn’t have any titles quite as detailed as Whitehead’s, but the spirit is the same. Oles’ book is largely an examination of the life of the 19th century sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Most of the poems are written in Hosmer’s voice and focus on the challenges Hosmer faced as a woman in a male-dominated field. She pulls from Hosmer’s letters and other sources to produce a solid, sturdy book of poems.

Where Waking Stone works best is in the poems where Oles describes Hosmer’s artistic intent, especially as it involves her place as a woman in a man’s world. Hosmer used her art to subvert the expectations of those around her as regarded marriage and family. For instance, in “My First Child, and Another Daughter,” she writes

What I hunt
is a place in art. I give you Daphne “arranged”
and orderly, calm in her choice.
Her father saves her, as does mine,
accepting these for grandchildren,
accepting me as wed to art.

Daphne, and later in the same poem, Medusa, are perfect subjects for this speaker, because they were women who didn’t want to be subjected to male gods and who were punished for it. No wonder Hosmer found them to be perfect subjects, just as she found Zenobia, the Syrian queen who conquered Egypt in the third century. Oles speaks in her voice in the poem “Zenobia Speaks, In Chains and Free,” pulling off the nice twist of taking up the voice of the subject of one of Hosmer’s sculptures.

This Zenobia is no one’s slave,
will not stretch supine on a Roman couch.
Are you ready, world, for such a Queen?
Such a woman, who holds her freedom
in her own mind?

That might as well be Hosmer’s own voice speaking, which is really the point of the book. Even when Oles writes in her own voice, it’s often indistinguishable from the one she created for Hosmer—the reader relies on textual clues to separate the two voices.

Perhaps the most interesting moment in the book, however, comes near the end, in the poem “Brief Letter from Hatty, and Author’s Response.” It’s a justification of sorts for the project, and addresses the very notion of speaking in the voice of another person. Harriet challenges the poet in her letter, saying “Now who are you, / by what clairvoyance do you find such shadows? / Do you not gaze within yourself?” Hatty is disturbed by the idea that an unauthorized biographer didn’t cast her life as one of “merriment and brightness; exuberance of spirits, / care-free as a child.”

Oles’s response is illuminating.

Just so!—to find what all denied.
Consoling thought, but science teaches
children aren’t care-free.
I grant you chords of every music,
carve of you our greatest model
Hatty Victrix
for viewing in the round.

Of course Hatty wants to control the image others will have of her, but in order to reach a truth about who Hosmer was, Oles has to reach beyond what the subject wants to be known, has to create a Hatty “in the round.” Otherwise, Oles is simply writing biography in verse.

Because this is an act of imagination, some of the facts are certainly invented—thus Hosmer’s question “Do you not gaze within yourself?” But as Miller Williams is famous for saying, “a poem lies its way to the truth.” This poem—this collection of poems—does just that, and does it very successfully.

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Brian Spears received his MFA from the University of Arkansas in 2003, and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University from 2003-2005. He currently teaches at Florida Atlantic University, and his poetry has appeared recently in The Southern Review, Louisiana Literature, storySouth and Measure, among others. He is also the founder of the political blog Incertus (http://incertus.blogspot.com).