A friend of mine, Laurel Peterson, recently published a chapbook of poetry called That’s the Way the Music Sounds, and I’m so pleased to say that it’s a gorgeous book and the poems are beautiful. It’s so much fun having friends who are writers, as I enjoy reading their work and seeing another side of them than I might otherwise, and it’s especially fun when the work is so good. The poems in this book take up a lot of different subjects and the voice varies in each one, but there is an elegance that runs through them all, coupled with a quiet, but powerful emotional charge, as though the persona could say so much more than she actually does, and you get a glimpse of the depths underneath. It means an intense reading experience, which is the way reading poetry should be, I think.
A number of poems in the book are about religious experience, or more often memories of religious experiences, and these are among the ones I like best. The tone in these poems is sometimes sad, sometimes angry and regretful, and sometimes thoughtfully critical. The persona in “I Have Come to Return Marbles,” for example, looks back at her childhood spent in church services from the perspective of an adult, thinking about the legacy she inherited from the sermons she heard:
Always I picked the needy ones,
boys who stretched khaki’d legs
out on the church floor
and shot their problems
On those teenaged nights I sat
in the balcony watching
Jack, in the pulpit,
I thought I’d tuned him out.
But Jack, the preacher, knows that his sermons will sink in anyway, even if the teenagers aren’t listening:
Jack’s voice choes
in this empty nave
where I now sit
surrounded by all those
khaki’d boys — husbands and lovers —
demanding stones for a prostitute,
sacrifice of a mother’s first born,
and quiet, quiet
when men speak.
The persona has returned to the church, trying to return those marbles — the burdens she’s been expected to carry — but Jack’s voice is still there. Another poem describes a panic attack experienced while in a church service on Christmas day, where the persona is suddenly taken back to childhood experiences in the church and has to remind herself that she is not the young, vulnerable girl she once was and that she:
doesn’t need to to say she wants to be a missionary,
that she believes the husband is the head of the wife,
to sing “Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth…”
while pretending her toes don’t bend in red impotence.
But the poems aren’t all about church experiences, and they aren’t all sad. The poem “Late Jazz,” which is where the book’s title comes from, describes a night in New York City listening to jazz, and it’s one of those nights where everything is perfect:
And the way the music sounds is
as if all of New York is on fire,
while ice floes crackle on the Hudson
and the morning falls with ice
and the evening rises with heat
and the sparks fly off the floes
into the burning air…
The poem captures that feeling of exhilaration at a time when New York City is as it should be: glamorous, elegant, thrillingly alive. Another favorite poem of mine is called “Mantra,” and it’s about writer’s block. The persona starts with an empty, clean desk with room for words to move around in, and then the words take on a life of their own, and suddenly they are everywhere, and they are overwhelming. Familiar phrases, song lyrics, and advertising jingles float around and repeat in the writer’s mind again and again, until they begin to lose all meaning and empty out, and soon enough, the writer’s desk is clear again and there is an empty space for the words to move around in. It’s a funny and clever contemplation of what it’s like to try to work with words, to conjure them up and control them, when words are all around us all the time, almost taunting us with their omnipresence.
I’ve described only a few of the poems here, but there are many more that capture something true about experience and do it with that evocative tone I’ve been describing. I’ve been discovering as I read more and more that voice is what I really value in writing — of whatever genre — and it’s the voice in these poems I admire so much: insightful, suggestive, in love with language.