Friday, December 30, 2011

Diversion: Poetry that Says Both Hello and Goodbye -- (a) Shara McCallum, (b) Megan Snyder-Camp

A 2011 collection of poems that continues to echo for me, both on the page and via its enclosed marvelous CD, is Shara McCallum's book THIS STRANGE LAND (Alice James Books). McCallum, originally from Jamaica, embeds her poems with multiple tongues -- fragments of Spanish, Creole, and more. Her two earlier books are Song of Thieves and The Water Between Us, and her poems have been widely translated. Their gentle forms, just loose enough for one's own thoughts to permeate, but snug enough for precisely expressed sentences and dialogue, embrace the emotions of love for life and for one's daughter, one's mother, one's lover. I like this stanza from the opening poem, "Psalm for Kingston":

City where Marley sang, Jah would never give the power to a baldhead
   while the baldheads reigned, where my parents chanted
      down Babylon -- Fire! Burn! Jah! Rastafari! Selassie I! --
   where they paid weekly dues, saving for our passages back to Africa,
while in their beds my grandparents slept fitfully, dreaming of America.
And here's the opening from "The Shore":
Then, you turned from me in failing light,
trees startling into sleep,
snow rearranging itself in slender branches.
It is snowing as I re-read those lines, and the rest of the poem grows the way that lines of frost do on a chilled window, revealing a delicate pattern of affection and vision.

McCallum also gives us an exquisite nine-page poem "From the Book of Mothers," a bright lacy network of short fragments that convey the fabric of enduring love, as well as its shadows: "Daughter, is it your aging / or my own I fear most?"

There are some fascinating interviews with McCallum on YouTube, one in her role as director of the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell College, and another as part of Dennis Miller's "Conversations" via Mansfield University.

* * *

Sometimes a book of poems can hit so hard that it takes time before I'm willing to talk about it. I've picked up THE FOREST OF SURE THINGS by Megan Snyder-Camp and let it carve its way into my thoughts, then let it go, then picked it up, again and again. It's the kind of book that both wounds and binds. The first section is called "Borrowed Memory" and the narratives in it can make a person weep, as they unveil loss in precise short tales. Phrases from the poems here embed themselves like glass slivers: "The marriage ran under their skin, a rash," or "In this land the children tear their hearts in half."

The second section, "Tether," pulls the losses in closely toward what we cherish most tenderly, and offers some blessings on the bleeding: "May this slipping away protect us, / may the loss of days ease the ones I love / from their anger, that sturdy chair / circled all day by its shadow, without which / a dim sea would come to level our yard, level / as in make right."

The collection won the Tupelo Press/Carzyhorse award for an outstanding first book. I shivered when I noticed that one of its back-cover blurbs was from Lia Purpura, author of King Baby, another collection that has amazed and moved me. Hello, life and love; goodbye, love and life. A new year begins.

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