August 10, 2009

Review by Angela Micheli Otwell

WHO’S TO SAY WHAT’S HOME
by Kim Calder

Writ Large Press
Los Angeles, California
ISBN 978-0-9814836-1-0
2008, 129 pp., $15.00
www.writlargepress.com

Kim Calder’s poems in Who’s to Say What’s Home are largely first-person narratives about living in the desert and pursuing mirages, specifically the promise that alcohol might sate every thirst. In the opening poem, “sunstroke,” a child wanders in the dust and envies the lifeless clay shards that are at home there:

. . . this is where I want to be,
face down beside a cactus in in the wind
the sand whipping over my ears,
the snakes moving past me in half-darkness.

In addition to the desert and sand being important motifs, fire is important as well. In “burn without screaming,” a monk sets himself on fire while another man reduces the narrator to “a pile of ash in the corner.” In “hold it tight,” however, fire is a purifying force, even though it burns.

Perhaps the purification – by alcohol, by fire, by pain – is supposed to make everything worthwhile, but these poems do not offer much in the way of hope. The poem “dear mr. bukowski.” asks Charles Bukowski, of all people, when things will get better, and in “burn without screaming,” the narrator indicates that if she fell to her knees to pray, she would spew bile “like the man in the next building vomiting / on his knees in front of the toilet.”

The poem “in memoriam” peers into a coffin; the bruised body wears a shirt reading “Exploited,” surrounded by bottles of Jagermeister and Jack Daniels. Presumably, the well-labeled corpse is either a warning or a harbinger of things to come.

Alcohol is both a source of solace and of suffering. In “smokescreen,”

At the bottom of this glass
I think I could find
happiness maybe.

But in “sunstroke,” a daughter is drunk, drowning in her excesses, and is left by her father to suffer the consequences alone, while in “this place is really falling apart,” she drinks merely to have something to do with her hands.

Though she is hurt by others, the narrator (or her thirst) is her own worst enemy, and she knows it. In “condensed autobiography,” she describes herself as

myself left a child
helpless against myself–
a slave to this monster
inside me,
a scorpion
stinging itself to death
in the desert heat.

And in “proverbs for paranoids,” she confesses, “It’s an instinct . . . to smash myself . . . to break my own heart.”

As these poems veer between desert and mirage, between dying of thirst and choking on sand, the conclusion seems to be that a home can be found here, that living from sorrow to sorrow, from desperation to desperation, can be comforting – or at least familiar. From “pollution,” comes these poignant lines:

And when I stared up,
the sharp clear points would come down from
heaven,
fall into the lakes of my eyes
as I am waiting to fall,
to fall into the arms of my father,
to find warmth in the sand.

These poems hint at a complex relationship between a father and daughter but do not explore this relationship in detail. However, I found one of the best poems of the collection to be “emergency room,” in which the daughter has to face her father’s aging and eventual death. This is a universal issue that we all have to deal with, yet the poem doesn’t veer into triteness at all. Calder demonstrates a remarkable ability to portray real grief – which I find refreshing in the midst of the many poems in this collection that seem to try to drown grief out.

As I read, I found myself weary of reading and wishing Calder’s narrator had made some sort of progress, found an oasis in the desert, a source of real hope. Instead she’s making a nest in the sand, living from drama to drama, trauma to trauma, but as the title says, as well as the closing line of the last poem, “rubble,” who’s to say what’s home?

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Angela Micheli Otwell is an artist/writer living in Greensboro, Georgia. You can find her at www.amopage.com.