November 10, 2008

Review by Janis Lull

THE COUNTRY OF WOMEN
by Sandra Kohler

Calyx Press
216 SW Madison, Suite 7
Corvallis, OR 97333
ISBN: 0-934971-45-5
1995, 92 pp., $11.95
www.calyxpress.org

The Country of Women was Sandra Kohler’s first book. A second, The Ceremonies Of Longing, came out in 2003.

For younger readers, some of Kohler’s experiences might seem a bit old-fashioned, although they fit my own memories pretty well:

Why wouldn’t a woman be good
at waiting for the poem?
She’s trained to wait
from cradle to grave.
Waiting to be old enough,
waiting to be a woman,
waiting to be asked,
waiting for the telephone call
waiting for the blood
every month,
waiting nine months
for a child (“Ars Poetica Feiminae III”)

Or maybe things haven’t changed all that much. Girls don’t have to wait to be asked any more, but waiting nine months for a child is still the deal. And the self-consciousness of women about our bodies is perhaps greater than ever. In “Waking,” a man slips out of his house before dawn and walks alone, watching the light bring the world to life. In “Inception,” a woman does the same thing, but unlike the man, she can’t be alone:

accompanied by the imagined
eyes of strangers,
she cannot walk down a street
except as a body
saying, “Someone can enter me,
possess me.”

In “Trying to Talk About Sex – I,” the poet says, “I want to tell the truth,” and for her, truth means particulars. What concerns her in this poem, for example, is not sex so much as what the title implies–how hard it is to talk about sex. At her best, Kohler doesn’t write about women, but about herself, or her good friend, “B,” or her sister: not about children, but her son, Charles; not about the body, but her own body, glimpsed in the mirror after a shower:

I’m a National Geographic nude:
a shock at first but so explicit
as to be utterly ordinary (“My Real Body”)

And yet, as this same poem says, “Nothing is more exotic than the real.” Grounded in the comfortable daily life of a middle-aged American woman, Kohler’s poems evoke suburban kitchens and gardens–a slow-spreading bed of impatiens becomes a metaphor for the body in one poem, for marriage in another. Occasionally, she reveals a tendency to over-generalize. In “Biography,” for example, she once again evokes female vulnerability: “There is no such thing / as an anonymous woman.” Really? Never? As Doris Lessing observed, even construction workers stop noticing us when we get really old. Maybe Kohler wasn’t yet old enough when she wrote these poems.

Learning hovers in Kohler’s work, but lightly. With a nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins, she identifies “leaf-mold, / that lovely word” as the cause of her child’s allergies, and it becomes both a real and a metaphorical death-threat (“Seasons IV”). In “Bread,” she momentarily longs for an art that transcends the ordinary:

It’s not enough:
the daily. I wanted wings,
flutes, the white annunciation
shattering my house.

The desire to be Emily Dickinson–or at least to have Dickinson for a muse–must have touched most American women poets at one time or another. But Kohler’s best writing is a poetry of the everyday. And so, in this poem, Dickinson’s spirit arrives as love and a decent breakfast rather than a “white annunciation”:

Wake early enough, and it is
Sunday, the air sanctified
by the absence of design.
Smell warm bread, the ripe
musk of the vines. At the edge of vision,
love’s white skirts are vanishing.

Kohler writes lyrics in complete sentences. Commas and periods appear where they’re supposed to be, and lines begin with capital letters when the new line starts a new sentence. Combined with the short lines, this emphasis on the sentence as a unit of composition makes each poem a kind of diagram, slowing the sentences down, taking them apart to show how they work:

The surface of the milk
is quiet, but slowly tiny
bubbles well up around the edge,
circle it, lace, a delicate ruff
dividing liquid from
the enamelled wall of the pan. (“Desire”)

Words or phrases, such as “leaf-mold,” often recur from poem to poem, but Kohler rarely uses rhyme. It seems to happen only when she can’t avoid it: “breeds” rhymes with “bleeds,” for example. A close attention to consonance nevertheless rewards the reader. When nearby lines end with “world,” “womb,” “autumn” “dawn” and “ominous,” one could almost reconstruct the sense of the section from its echoing end-words (“Seasons III”). Kohler may not write poems that shatter the house, but they are strongly built and fit for living.

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Janis Lull is professor emerita of English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  She has published scholarship on Shakespeare, George Herbert, and John Donne.  Her poems have appeared in The Little Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Northwest, Epoch, and elsewhere.

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