Review by Carole Borges
THE QUESTION OF RAPTURE
by Claire Keyes
408 N. Lincoln Street
Bay City, MI 48708
2008, 72 pp., $14.95
In her first volume of poetry, Claire Keyes steps onto the literary stage with a maturity and mastery of craft that reflects an educated passion for words and the possession of a perception that fully and courageously embraces both the light and dark side of our human psyche.
Her childhood poems celebrate the details of American life: the drunken uncles, the clatter of dishes, the sound of a piano tinkling across a lawn, and the smell of fresh washed clothes. Childhood games reflect the seriousness adulthood will demand.
In “Playing Cards with My Father,” Keyes writes:
…We were green as spring clover, as shoots
of March grass, green and thirsty
for an afternoon with him at the card table, other kids
reduced to skating or cracked sidewalks, shooting hoops,
playing Double-Dutchies, their chants and rope-slapping
mere child’s play. Another hand another.
Don’t skunk me, Pop. My mother watches from the kitchen.
Her game is playing house. With my flair
for the father-tongue, its rules and syntax, I know
winning is better than losing.
If you don’t have that straight, pretend.
He takes one card, tucks it into his hand, lifts his eyes.
I’ll raise you, he says.
In spite of a feeling of normalcy the possibility of darker elements lurk inside and outside of the home. A mother’s death, a brother’s death, the reality that a child molester can lurk in familiar areas–facing these experiences becomes an essential part of the journey from innocence to a mature wholeness and grace.
Now everyone knows his little tricks:
Come to the carnival, little one.
At our place, where the sun ascends
over the trees, the birches stand out,
their pocked bark. The scrub grows lush
this time of year, raspberry bushes
at every turn. Someone was stealing
our berries. We imagined new neighbors
but never the black bear, lifting its snout,
inhaling the blush of red fruit before
stripping the bushes. When I was a child,
I was fragile inside despite legs
like an elegant colt. The stranger in fatigues
noticed. Is it easy to violate children?
Whether it is in Key West, Cape Cod, or during a walk on Nantasket Beach, nature plays a prominent role in Keyes’ narrative. Familiar ocean beaches with names that pinpoint locality surge with reminders that the poet’s Irish roots inform her current perspectives. Strength is drawn from a mother’s willingness to cross the ocean to come to America, and the ocean can also act as a buffer against the reality of a father’s need to drink.
I never understood the sense of it,
but I didn’t care
as long as we reached the shore,
Nantasket’s waves rolling over us, my skin
glowing red, the ocean so frigid
it felt like burn.
As the book progresses, appreciation for simple moments becomes more acute. In “A Minor Nation,” a poem that evokes the lyricism of Agee, ordinary moments become almost magical.
At twilight on our porch, I listen as crickets serenade,
males wooing females, a chorus both loud and constant.
A charmed evening; no need for the slap of fans, wet leaves
glistening after a welcome wash of rain. Inside the screen door
the ebb and flow of Sox fans cheering/jeering a late season
ballgame, the banter of gritty baritones noting the play.
One of the interesting evolutions this book explores is the movement from self to other. The appearance of another, a soul mate, a lover, brings an almost surprising tenderness to the poems that follow.
In “Matinee,” the powerful line, “All the sounds you make are music to me,” reveals great joy, and the final lines of the poem celebrate the coming together of masculine and female elements, a new wholeness.
….Slipping my arm through your arm,
I slide my hand into your pocket. The sky tonight
is like nothing we’ve ever seen, gray lowering clouds, a slim margin of pink.
Keyes’ poems are well wrought. Her knowledge of poetry rises to the surface over and over again. In the poems she dedicates to Plath or Bishop, she responds to what they have taught her with some brilliant moves of her own. In “Falling Fire,” the poet uses a stanza from one of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems to weave her own contemporary perspective of the world’s order. In “Poem Ending,” in a line from Sylvia Plath, Keyes pays tribute to the strength she has received from Plath’s work.
When I’m transfixed by thin blue lines
on yellow paper, when I’m weary, daunted,
she appears: a woman with a luminous smile
and a crisp voice who declares.
“The blood blooms clean in you, ruby.”
The final poem in Rapture summarizes some of the elements which have contributed to the holistic and healed essence which now informs the narrator’s perception of self, the acceptance of both past and present, and the ability to celebrate the journey that never ends. The desire we all have to know rapture, the ability to see it as a blessing when it comes, the belief that even though we sometimes suffer losses and hopelessness rapture returns.
Maybe it’s simply to exult as I shift to the lunge,
arms thrust overhead, fingertips pointed, until
I begin to quiver, ankle-knee-thigh. Not my mother,
but some other creature I’m coming to know
Carole Borges: “I think it’s fair to say my lifelong and often maddening pursuit of the poetry Muse rests squarely on the burly shoulders of Alan Ginsberg. A few decades ago, I enrolled in a Method acting class at Hull House Theater in Chicago. Our teacher Maureen Steindler would often turn out the lights and play weird music so we could dance uninhibited in the dark. The music she played was jazz, wild bebop, moaning saxophones, drums that made my body want to jerk and sway. One day when I was schlepping around Maxwell Street looking for artsy things to decorate my apartment, I saw an album with brown swirls all over it. Aha! Weird music! I grabbed it up, imagining Maureen’s smile when I brought it to class. Click. Flop. Swing. As the needle moved to the edge of the swirling record, I stood up ready to dance, but what came out of the speakers confused me. In a deep baritone voice, I heard a man speaking. It was English, but like no other English I had ever heard. Was it music? I needed to know like my life depended on it, so I grabbed the record jacket to scan it for a clue. The word POETRY was written in small letters in one corner. Poetry? That was poetry? Reading further I discovered it was Alan Ginsburg reading his poem Kaddish, and that was that. Ever since that day I have tracked the poetry Muse with the fervor of a hungry hunter. A few times I’ve even caught her.”