November 15, 2011

Review by David Lee Garrison

WHAT TO TELL JOSEME
by Lianne Spidel

Main Street Rag Publishing
PO Box 690100
Charlotte, NC 28227
ISBN 978-1-59948-307-8
2011, 76 pp., $14
www.MainStreetRag.com

Joseme is the poet’s imaginary companion from childhood. She imagines Joseme coming back, “hair streaky or plain gray as befits / the grandmother you may be,” and these poems tell the stories she would tell her old friend, the stories of her life and the lives of her friends and family. They are good stories. As Charles Harper Webb writes on the back cover, this book “reminds us of what it means to be human.”

The first section, “Old Snapshots,” revolves around childhood memories of the poet’s parents reading the news of World War II at breakfast, of an aunt telling her about Vienna before the war, of the poet making snow angels with her playmates. “Threads” remembers a father who went to work in a suit but changed when he got to the office, where he

rolled up his sleeves and turned
to his drawing board. He never
seemed to need a thing, never bought
more than a single shirt at a time.

While these lines describe the man, his impact on others is subtly revealed in what happens to his clothes after death. His grandson wears the topcoat even though it does not fit. The poet cannot bear to throw away his navy blazer and gives it to a friend who wears it to work “with a dozen glitzy Christmas pins” as a fashion statement. Whimsical and poignant, the poem shows how the father lives on through his clothes and through the love people had for him.

The last poem of this section picks up a different kind of thread. The poet, now a young mother of two boys, hears her husband back the car out of the garage at night and

…thinks how the thread between them
stretches fine, spins itself invisible
in darkness, so that neither will know
the exact moment when it disappears.

While the father goes on living, so to speak, through his clothes, the husband fades away as the delicate thread of a relationship is torn, pulled apart as husband and wife move inexorably toward different “Destinations.”

The second part of the book, “Everyone Gets Displaced,” deals primarily with loss. “Clockwork,” for example, has to do with a man who fixes clocks and one day realizes he has run into a complex mechanism that he cannot fix—his own mind, which is winding down in dementia. The climax of this section is an eight-part tour de force about the poet’s life as a teacher in rural Adams County on the Ohio River:

     Here, richness lay in tangled plants,
wild fruit and the chance of snakes,
and always the river ahead,
drawing us even as we stopped short of it,

a margin to honor, the edge
of the place we had chosen
and would come to cherish…

A lot happens in this place. The teachers go on strike but a few of them, including the poet, cross the picket lines and teach their classes, carefully staying away from the windows. The poet receives threatening phone calls. Her husband runs for judge and loses the election. Eventually he says to her, “‘I have to get rid of my past, / and like it or not, you are a part of my past.’” Years later the poet goes back to Adams County to celebrate the retirement of one of her teacher friends and finds that

Everything was as it had been, the river,
the people, the gently sloping lawn,
the high bluff brooding
beyond the road.

And yet, although the place has not changed, the poet realizes that the people here form a tribe “we took to be our own and loved, / who cast us out of Eden.”

The mixture of description and plain statement the poet uses to tell these stories is unpretentious, haunting, and compelling.

Spidel sprinkles poems about ghosts and supernatural things throughout the book. One of these, “Listening for Emily,” opens the third and final section. In it, the poet and her students are wrestling with a mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson when the classroom door “opened by itself in an empty hall / and I said, “Come in, Emily. / “Have you something more to tell us?” The supernatural element of the book should not surprise us given that it begins with the poet welcoming home her imaginary friend. It ends, fittingly, with the “Arrival” of a new friend, a baby girl, a grandchild. Family members bend close, and

…we hear you hum
a single clear note even
as you sleep, hold our breath
and listen for the fragile thread

of sound spinning around us.

The threads of the father’s clothing, the thread of the poet’s marriage, and the thread of a child’s song intertwine. In the end, the threads of the book wind their way to the magical beginning that is birth.

Emily Dickinson would approve. She knew a good poem when she felt the top of her head coming off and that’s what I felt as I read this book in one sitting. You’ll love it.

____________

The poetry of David Lee Garrison has been published in Connecticut Review, Poem, Rattle, and several anthologies. Garrison Keillor read two poems from his book, Sweeping the Cemetery (Browser Books), on The Writer’s Almanac, and one of those appears in Keillor’s Good Poems American Places (Viking). David has a new book coming out in 2012, Bach in the DC Metro (Browser Books), the title poem of which first appeared in Rattle and was featured by Ted Kooser on his website, American Life in Poetry. David is a retired professor of Spanish and Portuguese who lives in Dayton, Ohio, and can be reached at: david.garrison@wright.edu.