Monday, April 23, 2007

Vermont's Strong Women of Poetry: April 29

It's still April, so it's still National Poetry Month, and Kingdom Books is hosting Ellen Dudley and Joan Aleshire for a poetry brunch on Sunday April 29, at 11:30 a.m. -- the coffee cake and goodies are on us.

These two poets are driving up from southern Vermont: Dudley lives in Marlboro, where she is the founding editor of the Marlboro Review (no connection to the college), and Aleshire is in Shrewsbury, when she's not in North Carolina to teach in the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College. See our March review of Dudley's new collection, THE GEOGRAPHIC CURE -- it's a great example of what midlife can be at its best, vigorous, passionate, and sturdily rooted in experience without being sapped by nostalgia.

Aleshire's most familiar volume to most readers may be THE YELLOW TRANSPARENTS, which Four Way Books brought out in 1997. The title poem evokes a fugitive young love:

An early apple, a summer one
that doesn't keep, it grows only
in dooryards or orchards
lost to bramble and weeds.

We're already on less certain ground than in Dudley's poems; rather than seizing a lover, muscled and dramatic, Aleshire's lines flick delicately at the scent and texture of a bowl of apple chunks, "like a horse, so I put my mouth right here." And when the scene's been painted (watercolors over pen and ink, misty with the past), the poem turns like the volte of a sonnet:

I gave you what I could, knowing
it wouldn't last, wasn't nearly enough.
The last summer light over the fields now
brightens just bfore it goes,
leaving the leaves it's turned gold,
th early appled with their transparent skin.
You can almost see the apple-flesh;
you can see your whole life through it.

Aleshire's deft weaving of the New England landscape into the patterns of love is the heart of this collection. It pulses similarly in her poem "Days As Gray and Brown," where she writes, "in love as I was all those days with you, / or practicing," and it moves adeptly to the raw coast of Maine, where in "Northeast Pool," "I wanted to give them a password, an answer -- / to own the mystery of myself."

In 2003, Four Way brought out Aleshire's fourth collection, LITANY OF THANKS. Farewell to the gossamer strands of remembrance, the tentative gifts of love -- LITANY is instead a pounding, forceful sequence of elegiac poems, many addressed to Aleshire's long-time love Mitch Spencer, who, if poetry be narrative, fell to a stunningly unexpected death from a small plane. Spiked with short blades all labeled "Day at Zero" (temperature? timelessness? the moment of shock when loss penetrates the heart?), the poems relentlessly address the "you" of the person whose presence is stolen from us.

Face into a stinging wind of loss, "Your Feet" begins:

The first days after you died, when my body
protested, refusing to sleep and taste,
when my face was rubbed raw by rivulets
of salt, I kept seeing first
your feet, their articulate tendons,
as if you'd just peeled off the confines
of sneakers and socks, and were flexing them.

Short feeet, for a man, but the broad base
of your enterprise: you worked them hard.

And while Aleshire leads us through a narrative that is itself about leading -- much as dancing can sometimes be -- she holds a dense weighted center that emerges in her closing lines that face the pain of life "without":

I did, I do -- I don't know how
to answer absence, except by this
attachment to the tangible, or: desire.

Titles of these poems declare death: "Dia de los Muertos," "The Lost," "Always." I especially like the way that the icy fragments separate them and prevent them from overwhelming. Here is one "Day at Zero" page:

The moon slips up,
half its head gone,
but making no mistakes.
Wind drives a hard bargain;
trees do nothing to shield us.

Now I have to wonder: What conversations, what exploration, what presence will the two voices of these very different poets provoke when they arrive here on April 29?

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