Jul/Aug 2012  •   Reviews & Interviews

Two Simplicities (Each with Volcano)

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Swimming the Colorado.
Denise Banker.
Empty Bowl Press. 2011. 128 pp.
ISBN 978-1929355792.

Blue Trajectory.
Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom.
Dancing Girl Press. 2011. 28 pp.

Denise Banker taught for some years, successfully it would seem by the scattered signs that career has left behind on the Internet. Soon after her husband died from cancer, at the age of 47, she returned to college to pursue an MFA in poetry from the University of Nebraska. Several of her poems have been placed in top-flight journals and anthologies but not so many as to mark her out as a prodigy. There are hints that this began a much more social phase of her life. After leaving the University of Nebraska she taught briefly at Concordia University before serving as the publicist for Copper Canyon Press.

Her life is her working material and it is a life with which a reader can readily empathize. Her mother died when Banker was still quite young. It is so central a part of her life that Swimming the Colorado begins with three poems that orient the reader; it is where her poetry begins. The second, in particular, is haunting, as young Denise looks up to a hospital window, one bleak Christmas season, where her...

...withered mother
glows yellow
as she waves goodbye.

The brief concatenation of stark and simple images leading up to these final lines arrives at a sense of devastation such as few poems possess.

She is "the flower vendor's daughter" and soon the flower vendor, too, is in the grave. He leaves behind frequent images of flowers as his inheritance. The circus and fairy tale themes that interleave these poems of early loss give way to flora and fauna and natural vistas and a husband.

And, then, hospitals and death again, loss, grieving and going on. And, again, "Yearning":

I want you, Odysseus.
I want to pack your kitchen.
I want to mark the box.

Perhaps the poverty and parental alcoholism of her childhood gave her strength. But there is something more, something less explicable:

Someone in this family (you won't see it) has to be
so it will be me.

Where the determination comes from, it is difficult to say, but it is there, an understated presence throughout these poems.

Her husband gone, nature remains. In fact, there is still more of it in the poems, which, presumably, reflects still more in her life. She lives in it when she can, now, rather than visiting:

The volcanic peak rises fourteen thousand feet
from sea level outside our window;
we paid for the view,
but the taxes are killing us.

She lives in the small details of her day:

I have folded foil and placed it
in the drawer to be used later,
perhaps a slice of meat or the top
for a cheesy casserole.

Spoiler alert! In the next book, she will marry again.

Where the images are simple and direct, the poems of Denise Banker's Swimming the Colorado are strong. The poems throughout succeed almost precisely in inverse proportion to the extent of the poet's attempts at sophistication.

Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom graduated from the Johns Hopkins MFA program, in 2008, presumably in her mid-20s, and has published poetry in a wide range of electronic journals. She is the editor of the highly respected online journal Melusine. In her brief, unpaginated chapbook, Blue Trajectory, the poet's life is only inferred—and that at considerable distance (a daring choice). Her stark simplicity is sophistication itself.

The chapbook's very brevity cannot help but suggest transience. Punctuation is largely used in order to truncate putative sentences into pointers toward emotional states. Occasionally, they denote actual complete units of thought, striking and effectively highlighted among so much that is diaphanous:

The heart forgets,
and like a dumb mutt

goes on forgetting
what she's stowed.

A general tone inheres throughout, constructed from a procession of colors (predominantly, blue) and tiny natural detail, almost inadvertently metaphorical. The built world appears ironically, here and there, within it:

A garden is chalk, is oil, is macramé. A garden
breaks our heart. We had a heart to break. It

broke. And now there are two hearts. Please
refer to the spreadsheet.

The dominant trope involves playing at the edge of solidity, where the emotional and material worlds are almost one.

The poems themselves are filled with images which bear a tenuous relationship. Where they seem simply discontinuous, the reader's job is to seek for what he or she—or the poet—may be lacking. In the poem "Asylum":

Small birds and driftwood will carry
to the volcanic island.

It is a delightful observation, but, in the next lines...

Wars of expansion lead to
chaos, equilibrium.

Is this observation offered as contrast between the warring world and the quiet, post-active island? Or, perhaps, as a metaphor drawn from nature's progression from volcanic expansion to a new biosphere? Both, it would seem, but far more the latter. In the end, it is the transience and the tenuity that is to the point.

As might be suspected, consistent and effective closure (or lack thereof) is the great challenge inherent in such a poetry. It is here that Kihlstrom quite understandably struggles a bit in Blue Trajectory.


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