Review by Margaret Holley
THE RATTLING WINDOW
by Catherine Staples
The Ashland Poetry Press
401 College Avenue
Ashland, OH 44805
2013, 78 pp., $15.95
Winner of the Robert McGovern Publication Prize
What a treasure this new McGovern Prize-winning collection is! Catherine Staples’ The Rattling Window seduces with its music even as it enlarges our world with mystery and the gestures of love. Granted, I am not an objective observer. I am easily charmed by verbal music, whether it’s Hopkins’s densely alliterative syncopation or Eliot’s smoothly haunting rhythms. And in these poems, both kinds of music repeatedly usher us into the palpable strangeness and beauty of everyday life.
The opening note is an exhilarating “Fear of Heights”: “A widow’s walk will go to your head.” Its oblique ekphrasis does not describe Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Widow’s Walk” from an observer’s point of view but rather circles and enters the seaside house beneath the rooftop lookout—with the chop of the door latch and susurrus of wind:
The latch unhitches to the drop of a thumb
and summer rushes out with a long-held breath …
The poem moves gradually up toward that ocean view from beneath and within. Much of the collection is prefigured here at the outset—the life of inanimate things (as “sheets fly off the wicker”), the presence of “unguessed dimensions swaying/ in wind,” and ultimately the whole glory and fragility of life:
white of the height, like sun flashing dizzily over the waves,
the bright likes of which once caused a boy to fall to the sea.
From this breathtaking opening, the collection moves on through sonorous tapestries of landscape (clematis “rioting violet/ in glorious vining tents of green”) and daily experience shot through with occasional gleams of the mythic. Inspired by a garden sculpture of the Three Fates, “Atropos and the Goldfinches” features two children blithely at play in the yard, while Atropos—with her sheers poised to cut the thread of life—looms as “the dizzy blind of light/ at the garden’s end.”
Throughout this volume Staples’ richly musical language turns the poems to the life-affirming face of each subject. On a winter pony ride in “Earth and Sky,” the “glitter of snow-melt” seems almost to be
the glimmering Styx itself and her greedy
boatman all too ready to steal us from this beauty,
and yet “in the dizzying white … the ponies know their way back” and can be counted on to “carry us home.” “Into the Blue” takes us diving (or dreaming of diving) a hundred feet down in the tropics with
a fleet of spotted blue damsels,
all the light aqua eyes on their indigo sides revolving.
As she returns from the depths to the surface of air and humanity, the poem touches suddenly another height: “There’s only the quick falling dark,/ a high wind rising. And at my fin’s tips/ a comet’s tail.”
In between the exotic depths and the wild heights lies the human world—love, children, the quotidian details of home and community. Just as the vulnerable child is embraced by the strong force of maternal tenderness, so the perilous frailty of each life has been encompassed by these poems’ great stamina for joy. Even when death is close by, as in “Seafarer,” we have ridden the surf
hallooing and whooping as waves hit and slipped.
and once in a while our skiffs would lift
wave on wave over the long white air.
So what is it exactly that rattles the window—only the wind? Of course not. Again and again the musical richness of these poems is a way of opening up new realms, of making tangible those “unguessed dimensions” and moments that link us, the living, with all that we’ve lost but still love. “All Souls Crossing” makes the mystery almost visible, “As soul flies its quick heel through slender squares/ Of window screen, into loose whispers of hide & seek/ Under the beach plum, lawn chairs …” After each otherworldly glimpse the solid world returns in full resonance.
In this beautiful book each reader will find hints of how to go from the mortal fear of that opening widow’s walk to the human comfort of its closing note as, heading homeward,
with trawlers and fishermen we make our way in,
salt-resined and creased, loose limbed
as morning wind beating a path through white pine.
Margaret Holley is the author of five books of poems, most recently Walking Through the Horizon (University of Arkansas Press), the title poem of which appeared in Rattle. She moved back East from Arizona to Delaware just in time for Hurricane Sandy.