April 6th, 2008
Review by E.K. Mortenson
by Terry Phelan
Box Turtle Press
184 Franklin Street
New York, NY 10013
92 pp., $15.00
ISBN 74470 23587
The old maxim from creative writing teachers says, "Write what you know." While this philosophy may not be responsible for the greatest of imaginative art--what would we have if we only ever wrote what we knew?--there is some wonderful writing to be discovered through this technique. It can result in close attention to detail and lush imagery of the quotidian. In the hands of an accomplished poet, the reader can see mundane objects, people, and scenes transformed and filled with daily grace. Terry Phelan's new book, Husk, the latest from the Mudfish Individual Poet Series, demonstrates her ability to attend to, and write about, that which she knows: her family, relationships, the daily business of life, and the Michigan of her youth and California of her present.
Phelan's verse hits hardest when she faces head-on the complexities of relationships. The collection, for example, features a series of long-lined pieces describing an "email affair." Interspersed throughout are smaller pieces illustrating the failures of marriage and family life and the desire for something greater. This sort of material runs the risk of being sentimental and cliché: the white, affluent, suburban middle-aged couple wishing for something new and exciting but trapped by career, children and complacency. However, Phelan is unsparing in her descriptions, and the verse is saved by the acknowledgment of "fault" on both sides. In Looking for Things to Complain About, the speaker relates:
That's what he called it,
as he stood, listing, bottle in hand.
And she can see it now
how she walked around with a magnifying glass
Even more powerful is the poem Have To, written in the persona of a beleaguered husband who asks, "Is it too much to ask for a few minutes to myself at the end of a long day?" Throughout the dogged complaints of a drudge life, Phelan intersperses beautifully poetic stanzas that reveal unspoken truth:
she once rose for me like a garden like a river opened and flowered in
sweet damp swells on backseats and worn couches I trembled and shook
to touch her it seemed a gift
an impossible velvet, new and familiar and me so unworthy
It is in stirringly honest pieces like this that the reader realizes that no one is to blame, that both husband and wife are complicit in their own undoing--neither can say how or when it all fell apart, simply that it has. Phelan accurately portrays the combination of hope and despair that often defines a relationship, as in lines like these from Anniversary:
And afterward, our kids ensconced
in front of the television screen,
we make love, miraculous as clockwork,
the fine planes of your face on the pillow,
the smell of woody oil on my fingers, rubbing
the papery skin, smoothing it back once again,
trying to get at the gift, the hard fruit.
There is a tenderness here, an attempt at recovering what is lost, yet we see that this can never be enough, and this is the power of Phelan's candid, yet compassionate, observations.
Likewise, the attention Phelan devotes to the subject of motherhood warrants comment.
Batman serves "to save / a cynical heart" while Goodbye: An Introduction explores how a simple trip to the aquarium with her 8-year-old son can become a lesson in letting go:
"This turned out to be
quite an exciting day," you said
as we left the building. You shook off my hand
as soon as we crossed the street, eager
to climb the statuary. "Don't jump from way up there."
But you ignored my warning, landing
squarely on your two feet
and walked away from me, smiling.
The missteps in Husk are few and seem as though they could have been largely avoided. A few of the poems might have been cut altogether. The series of Michigan poems, one for each season, offer vivid images through sparse description, but these images ultimately take us nowhere. They are, though pleasing verbal paintings of Michigan's changing seasons, more exercises than poems. At 92 pages, the collection would not have suffered for their absence.
Impressively, Phelan's images elevate themselves beyond mere description. Much of the author's imagery is mundane--this is not meant pejoratively; rather, one could argue that this is the most difficult imagery with which to work. How does one make a trip to the hairdressers a poem? Beehive is the answer (though the poem would be better served removed from its concrete form). What is transcendent about having an obscenity screamed in one's face? Dare informs thus. Ironically, how does the merest lack of meticulousness completely disrupt tranquility? See Blue Plate With Grapes.
Poetry can be everywhere and Husk displays this fact eloquently. Poetry does not simply exist, however, in the image itself. It takes the poet to unlock the extraordinary meaning from the ordinary sense. By and large, Phelan accomplishes this, particularly when the poems remain personal, when there is a guiding voice translating the image. While a few of the poems contribute only mass, most of the work in Husk lends us its significant weight.
Erik K. Mortenson received his BA from Colby College (Maine), his MA from
New York University, and is a candidate for an MFA from Western
Connecticut State University. When he is not writing poetry or book
reviews, he pays the mortgage as an "edutainer" at a small, private day
school in Fairfield County, Connecticut. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Red Clay Review, Connecticut Review, and Connecticut River Review. He lives in Stamford, CT with his wife, son, and two cats.