Review by Maria Garcia Rouphail
by Helen Losse
Main Street Rag
PO Box 690100
Charlotte, NC 28227
2011, 62 pp., $14.00
Poetry lovers will surely delight in Seriously Dangerous, Helen Losse’s latest collection of deftly sculpted lyric poems. Throughout this volume of 47 mostly short works, Losse reveals a sensibility that is at once intensely spiritual and concrete. Rooted in the natural world and often exhibiting abundant painterly detail, Losse’s poems are eloquent statements about life in the body—both individual and the collective. Life in its myriad private and public scenarios undergoes a thorough exploration, which the poet expresses with economical, sometimes deadpan, frankness as in the mordant poem, “Spin, Spin, Spin”:
People with crosses have
We know that most are dangerous,
except for the chosen few
God actually likes.
All of this isn’t to say that Losse parses life as though a cynic’s lens. Quite the contrary. I related immediately to the poems as true to my experiences of the rural South, and as affirming the good—in the forms of enriched awareness and enlarged communities—that I have seen result uncannily from chaos and tragedy.
“Just Saying,” for example, communicates the shocking and scary oddity of the world turned suddenly and literally upside down:
Sliding off the road,
we rolled slowly, then hung
suspended by seatbelts
until free but claustrophobic.
we rested in a roof-cradle.
These facts are preceded by the straightforward opening line: “I have been suspended upside down in a car.” The poem ends with the statement that the speaker “did not think of anything but prayer.” The poem’s shifting verb tenses suggest that the traffic accident is somehow existential, as well as physical. Other than in the choice of the participle “sliding” in the second stanza, the poem makes no attempt to account for the material causes of the event. Also, the poem’s movement from the first person “I” to “we” and then back to “I” again suggests a limit to shared experience. In the end, the speaker can only account for her own reaction to the event. “Prayer” in this context encompasses the poet’s sober awareness of life’s unnerving abruptness and fragility, and her response of dependence and gratitude. The poem’s formal symmetry (opening couplet, followed by two triplets, with a final couplet) is also indicative of the poem’s authority over an event experienced in the raw moment of its occurrence as life-out-of-control.
In contrast, “Dual Perspective” unfolds in pure painterly description:
I see a pot of dark pink impatiens
under a layer of evening calm. Inside,
a folded newspaper, an odd sock
on the glass coffee table, off to my left.
A framed still life, “Dual Perspective” offers something analogous to William Blake’s dictum about nature, that it is meaningless without a human presence. So, in this poem filled with inanimate objects we see a sleeping man who is also bald. His body fills a green chair, a cup of “forgotten tea” is at his side, decorated with flowers the same intense hue as the natural ones. The man-made cup is a partial miniature of the world at hand; for its part, the poem compresses the larger scene, communicating the speaker-artist’s subjectivity and aesthetic judgment: “[From] where I am / . . . “A nominal breeze is / present but too slight to alter the picture.” There are many poems in Seriously Dangerous that perform similar gestures with admirable skill: “Riding in a Model A in Early Springtime,” “Rain Had Fallen All Morning,” “The Storm We Encountered,” and “A Milk Jug Birdhouse,” to name four.
Seriously Dangerous is a slender volume whose cover features a cross engulfed in red flames, an iconic image recollecting the South’s—and America’s—violent racial past. Indeed, the collection’s eponymous poem, “Seriously Dangerous,” recovers some of the horrific facts about that history of “masks [and] hoods” and “truth [that] bleeds.” The image is all the more powerful for being cast starkly against a black background. I was drawn to this cross “without a savior ” as perhaps an emblem of human mayhem consumed in—or consuming—a dark night. But, this visual cue is no invitation to read a subtext of nihilism. Again, the poet’s confrontation with concrete reality in all of its (remembered) horror is tempered by empathy, as well as humility and the requisite formal excellence, characteristics common to art that engages both mind and heart. “The Danger of Pretense,” the very first poem of the collection, sets this tone of humility and circumspection before the mystery of nature’s sublime and awesome power:
The breeze ruffles a blue windsock,
slowly—it gathers the courage
to kill. I do not know
the nameless man, loved by God,
whose wife will die in the storm.
I found these lines to be the most evocative and powerful in a collection brimming with arresting lines. The compressed and understated imagery of a lethal wind gaining its “courage to kill” is both stunning and chilling, as is the speaker’s surrender before an impending catastrophe that will up-end the lives of strangers. The poem moves into an elegiac mood. It is nearly a jeremiad. Here is the poem’s de profundis:
Where is the mercy? Distant stars
do not console the wounded,
nor the sandman the young. . . ./
Are we a people
apart from the fury?
The poem moves to respond to the rhetorical question with an analogy. The speaker notices a “patch of violets” domesticated, one might say, in a yard rather than blooming amok in a wild, rock-strewn place. Are they better off? The speaker admits:
I do not know.
The enormity of natural or humanly orchestrated catastrophe is experienced in the body and in the heart. Pure rationality is incapable of removing heartbreak and loss. Here is where art, especially poetry, is particularly necessary and curative, for in affirming life’s mysteries and its pain, art provides agency and control for both the artist and for those who engage it. Art helps us to integrate the unthinkable and horrific dark night, thus helping to make tragedy endurable, if not also capable of enlarging rather than diminishing us.
The arrangement of poems in Seriously Dangerous merits comment, as well, for the poet has provided a clean and well lit space for contemplation and enjoyment. The 62-page volume comprises four separately titled parts, each with its eponymous poem lodged in the sequence. With just ten poems, the first part “Just Saying” is the exception, the others—“Where Light is Coming From,” “Spin, Spin, Spin,” and “Shifting Paradigm”—containing twelve poems each. “Just Saying” is also exceptional for having the title poem of the volume, “Seriously Dangerous.”
To read Helen Losse’s poems is to savor an eloquent voice. Nowhere is this voice more contemplative than in “Where Light is Going”:
It would be easier to speak as others believe,
not to feel the ocean’s intentions nor to sense
the pull of the moon. Grace abounds in ocean,
in flotsam, in rich sea foam, floats in earth’s
swirling dust . . . .
Ultimately, Seriously Dangerous embodies mindfulness of the connectedness of all things and of the urgency for each of us to be open to what is without forgetting what has been.
Maria Garcia Rouphail is on the English Department faculty at North Carolina State University, where she teaches in the World Literature program.