Review by Robert Krut
SLOPE OF THE CHILD EVERLASTING
by Laurie Kutchins
BOA Editions, Ltd., 250 N. Goodman St., Suite 307, Rochester, NY 14607;
ISBN# 978-1929918-91-1, 84 pp., $15.50
It's hard to believe it's been ten years since Laurie Kutchins' last book of poetry, The Night Path. That collection still seems immediate, thanks in large part to its striking imagery, imagery that reached to the subconscious to echo out for readers. The poems in the "Birthdream" sequence, for example, dove headfirst into such intensely personal images they became universal through their individuality and humanity. By exploring such unique territory, Kutchins created poems that connected with each of our own, internal landscapes. What makes her fine new collection, Slope of the Child Everlasting, such a strong addition to her previous books is the way the tables are turned. Whereas The Night Path used deeply rooted internal images, Slope of the Child Everlasting looks outward, calling upon the natural world for meaning, comfort, and illumination. It's as if the poet has simply pivoted--the same skill brought to her previous collections can be found here, just from a different vantage point.
The very first poem, "Togwotee," acts as invocation for the entire collection, calling upon nature to set the tone, and journey, of the book: "Atop this white divide be still, be the horned owl after hunger. / Marry my little ear to a stone in the wind's two-ocean river." Opening to the natural world outside allows the poems to breathe, and find their meaning. In one of many references to animal life, the poet takes the voice of a turtle, who acknowledges:
under old grass cuttings
beside the southern
brick of a house
my blunt red eyes
("Song of the Turtle Unburrowing")
The turtle, waking and moving out from under the home, knows there are truths to be found in the landscape surrounding it. Throughout the collection, the turtle acts as a sort of patron saint of the poems, reappearing on occasion. In one of its most memorable cameos, we see it as a sort of balance with other wildlife:
We sleep above a box turtle
that survives on crickets
in the tall grass and burrows close
beside the house when nights rehearse
the first frost. We sleep under eaves
where yellow jackets knit their
papery gray nests to survive
the seasons of ice.
("Bedroom Beside a Field")
In this, one of the best poems of the collection, the comforting, recurring turtle is the reverse of the threatening yellow jackets. They hide above the speaker, a constant presence. This silent, impending sting resonates throughout, signaling the complex concerns that slowly emerge through the poems.
This is a carefully structured book, as underlying issues subtly grow from the poems. It starts slowly--a line here, a line there. For example, in the midst of a meditation on the moon ("April Nights"), the lines: "my toddler who is learning to talk stops coughing, / notices over us the whisker of the moon / and wheezes, "where's grandpa?'" Or, in the poem "Whisper," a river becomes the voice of a child, leading the speaker to heartbreakingly state: "I'd have to hear it / and not listen." The focus on the natural world skillfully leads the poems into personal terrain, gently guiding us deep into darker territories.
In "The Voice Outside," Kutchins writes "It is good to inhabit a myth / without knowing / all of it"--it's as if these poems turned to nature, and the myth of that landscape, not knowing exactly where it would lead, but that it would lead somewhere. And they do. What begins as a collection of poems on nature leads us gently into thorny areas involving family, death, and even the War. All of this happens gradually, and we step along, quietly and deeper, with the poet. The images lead the way.
By the time we reach the evocative "Wind of My Childhood in the Night," with its dark psychological images, it's a shock, but in the best possible way. The poet has led us to the speaker's inner life, and we are moved by striking images like:
dark was more than dark
tables chairs overturned dishes
shattered a door slammed
on its hinge and mother
wilted into her gown
wind sounded like
deep under the sucked-out blankie
I was blanking
birds in my chest
a dead dog's head
for staying good and silent.
Here, we find the poems come full circle from the approach of The Night Path. Whereas that collection looked to images inwardly to evoke the emotions we all share, Slope of the Child Everlasting looks outward to our shared landscapes to make sense of the internal life. In the end, they are connected. The poems move inward to expand, and expand to move inward. As Kutchins writes in the very first poem, "Let me learn leaving and returning are the same / Yearning of breath." Slope of the Child Everlasting is a wonderful book that allows readers to connect with, and explore, the images that bind us.
Robert Krut's poems have appeared in such journals as Blackbird, Mid-American Review, and Barrow Street. Recently, his chapbook, Theory of the Walking Big Bang, was released through H-ngm-n Books. He lives in Los Angeles, and teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara.