Review by Valerie Martin Bailey
TALKING WITH STANLEY KUNITZ
by Juanita Torrence-Thompson
Torderwarz Publishing Company
P.O. Box 671058
Flushing, New York 11367-1058
2012, 78 pp. $14.95
In Juanita Torrence-Thompson’s latest book, Talking with Stanley Kunitz, her title poem describes a woman who attends a poetry reading, then has a serendipitous experience–an extended private conversation with Kunitz, the great poet. The poem, written with profound simplicity, ends with these lines:
She filled her mind with
Every syllable glistened.
This same summary is appropriate for Torrence-Thompson’s book, for the title poem opens the door on a panorama of eclectic poetry, and indeed, every syllable glistens.
The book is divided into four groups of poems: “Talking with Stanley Kunitz”–30 poems, “Ellington Concertos in the Key of Vermont”–17 poems, Traveling on the Road with Dr. Martin Luther King”–10 poems, and “Driving Robert De Niro–Sestinas”–9 poems.
The 66 poems in this volume take the reader on a roller coaster ride of human experience and emotion—from the anticipatory climb toward exhilarating heights of love, of both nature and fellow humans–agape, eros, phileo, and storge (family love)–to breath-taking plunges into disappointment, sorrow, and loss (tsunamis, trapped miners, the death of Martin Luther King), to a plethora of exciting, unexpected curves into reflection, irony, mystery, and triumph, and frequent quick surprising dives into humor. This book will leave you breathless and wanting to ride again.
I enjoyed every poem in this book, but I had favorites in each section. In the first section, in a poem titled “Teenager in London’s West End,” there’s an incident about a teenager who by chance meets Orson Welles walking on the street with a beautiful young woman. She works up courage to ask for his autograph. He agrees to give it, but she can’t find a pen in her purse—
I quickly scrambled for a pen. That is, I tugged
and prodded, glancing frantically at Orson Welles
waiting patiently, while this starstruck slip of an
American girl looked for a pen, a pencil or even
an eyebrow pencil. Exasperated, I finally said,
“Do you have a pen, Mr. Welles?”
“No,” he said. Then he took the young woman’s hand
and walked away, while I stood there in Trafalgar Square
starstruck and dumbstruck in the velvet London night.
This writer has the ability to take you with her into situations and experiences with words and phrases that draw the reader into the moment. I love the comment “or even an eyebrow pencil.” With that small phrase, the poet captures the desperation and frustration of the moment. Haven’t we all been there? This poem struck my funny bone, yet it also left me feeling the disappointment the poet must have felt at this missed opportunity.
Fascinating titles like, “Under the Pomegranate Sky” have equally fascinating lines that leap playfully from the whimsical to the mundane, from “A wrinkled day/ With kitty-corner folds” to “Quaker Oats/ Boiling in the pot at sunrise” and “The canker in your mouth/ That wouldn’t go away/ Although you gargled and swished/ Until the 4th of July.”
Torrence-Thompson takes everyday experiences and magically turns them into special events. In her poem, “Turn Down the Sun,” readers meet Jeb Tompkins, who lives “Down the clay road/ Near Tompkin’s old barn” and who was “meaner than/ A fox on a trampoline,” and “Jeb’s new wife Laurel Lee” who was “Always putting on airs /Trying to be different/ From us plain folks.” The poem goes on to reveal the narrator as a nosy neighbor who uses a pair of binoculars to keep track of her interesting country neighbors. This curious spy concludes, “It’s none of my never mind./ I’d best get to the canning./ Can’t wait to hear the gossip/ Tonight at Johnson’s barn dance.”
In “Litany of a Wife,” Torrence-Thompson tells the poignant story of a trapped miner in the voice of an anguished wife who waits for her husband’s rescue. With her life “now surrounded/ by coal-black walls,” she thinks of all the ordinary things that become so precious when life is on the line. We hear agonized cries from her desolate heart as she waits for news of her husband. Like all who grieve, the woman focuses on small irrelevant details to keep from dealing with the enormity of the situation. While thinking how glad she is to have given him a good breakfast, she snaps to the fact that his breakfast is unimportant now when what he needs most is fresh air to breathe.
Lord, why am I thinking about food
when we have to worry about them
getting enough fresh air and hope
the explosion did not block his way
out of the labyrinth and that he was
not crushed in the black abyss.
In the first section were several poems about Little Neck Bay, and I found myself wanting to go there. The “bay” poems were among my favorites. It’s difficult to choose an excerpt; each stanza is exquisite and begs to be quoted. The third and fourth stanza from “Afternoon on Little Neck Bay” will give you a small taste of the bay poems:
I imagine myself charmed
by long-necked cormorant plying
the lapping waves at dawn. I’ll rest my head
upon the satin shore while silver moonbeams
inhabit my mind, and a nightingale perches
upon the black locust to lull me to sleep,
and I dream the bay and I
could stay here forever and ever
The poem “Snowflake” proves that a poem does not have to be long to be effective. The stark simplicity of this poem is as perfect as the snowflake it describes, and although the tiny snowflake melts in the poem, it continues to hug my mind:
I watched a snowflake
fall and hug a wall
I blinked, and then
it wasn’t there at all
In a delightful poem “Cinnamon Day” I joined the poet sitting in an Italian restaurant, watching other patrons, and dreaming of exotic adventures until her food arrives. At the sight of the food, she is thrust into the immediate need of hunger, and her dreams melt like snow. Who among us has not experienced such as this? Our strong physical appetites in a temporal moment trump our long desired dreams and aspirations.
Italian bread was set
Upon a white linen tablecloth
She studied a painting
Of a young, blonde woman,
In a wide white hat
Aboard ship with a collie
For 30 seconds she wished
She were the woman in the
Painting on an adventure
To the Taj Mahal
Or to the African tundra
Minestrone soup and
Hot antipasto arrived
Thrusting her into the moment
Melting her thoughts
Like snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro
In the second section of the book, “Ellington Concertos in the Key of Vermont,” the poem “Echoes from the Mountaintop” takes the poet back in time to a mountain hamlet, horse-drawn carriages, and her mother’s loving echo from the mountain peak. The poet lifts her hand into the air, almost touching the amber sky. I can feel with the poet the longing for less technology and impersonal efficiency and more warmth and personal attention. In this mountain hamlet the poet speaks of a general store on the town green where “Proprietor and clerks are pleasant/ and helpful while the town gentry/ hold doors open for tourists and writers/ making us feel welcome.”
This same longing for a simpler life and more peace and quiet pervades many of the poems in this section. In “Cracked Ceiling in a New England Country House”
A poet rhymes her verses
with harsh metaphors
mocking the world
line after line
Nostalgia and enduring love clings to the stanzas of “Man and Woman in Vermont”:
They sit in the rose-colored
coifed ivory hair
framing a weathered face
Hazel eyes engage
He smiles, leans forward for the salt
which he sprinkles on his broccoli…
A warmth emanates from them
like two cast iron stoves
plucking African violets on a scorching safari
In “Wind-Blown Thoughts” the poet “sits on a maple stump/ waiting for inspiration…She wonders why she is here/ Waiting for inspiration…Waiting to put cursive curliques/ On recycled paper.” She concludes it is “Time to speak out, be herself/ Time to show the world her mettle/ Time to write mellifluous thoughts/ Spilling onto parchment.” These “wind-blown thoughts” sum up the desire of poets and writers everywhere.
Near the end of the book among the sestinas, I found another poem about Little Neck Bay that I like best of all the bay poems. Although I’ve never been to Little Neck Bay, reading Torrence-Thompsons poems, especially “Falling in Love with Little Neck Bay” made me fall in love with it too. Here are a couple of stanzas from the sestina that took me there:
Blue, green, yellow bouquets
entice romantic love.
It is a honeymoon for my eyes
feasting on pristine Little Neck Bay
at high tide, when birds
take wing and prance on emerald shores.
Smoothly sculpted rocks pepper the shore.
Nature flings her bouquet
which spirals into the air, while birds
soar through teal blue skies with love,
tap dancing on Little Neck Bay
on a warm summer day. My eyes
scour the jade green landscape for other eyes
but I am alone on shore
watching boats ply the cerulean bay
Every poem in this volume is worthy of an individual critique, but space does not permit a full review of each individual jewel that fills this jewel box of a book. Besides if I shared every poem here, you would have no need to read the book, and you do need to read this book, and you will want to read it again and again. Juanita Torrence-Thompson lives up to her reputation as an important American poet.
Valerie Martin Bailey is a poet and editor from San Antonio, Texas. She is the editor of three poetry anthologies: Inkwell Echoes, the San Antonio Poets Association anthology, The Dreamcatcher, the anthology for the Laurel Crown Foundation, and Encore, the anthology of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. She serves on the Executive Board of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies as 2nd Vice Chancellor. A Councilor for the Poetry Society of Texas, she has won their two highest awards: The President’s Award and the Hilton Ross Greer Outstanding Service Award. She has chaired two state poetry conferences and one national poetry conference. She has served as the guest poetry editor for the San Antonio Express-News and is an associate editor of Voices de la Luna: A Quarterly Poetry and Art Magazine published in San Antonio, Texas. She is in demand as a judge for state and national poetry contests and has judged for the state societies of: Texas, Arizona, Minnesota, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Utah, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and many others. She has been Poet Laureate of the San Antonio Poets Association eight times and has won their Poetic Excellence Award six times. She was recently one of twenty-one poets nominated in the city’s search for a Poet Laureate to represent the entire City of San Antonio.