Jan/Feb 2017  •   Reviews & Interviews

What Will Keep Us Alive

Review by Jennifer Finstrom

What Will Keep Us Alive.
Kristin LaTour.
Sundress Publications. 2015. 86 pp.
ISBN 978-1939675255.

While I have heard Kristin LaTour read many times over the years at various Chicago venues, What Will Keep Us Alive was the first opportunity I've had to settle down with so many of her poems at once. I'm always interested in how knowing I'm going to review a book changes how I annotate it. I still star lines I love, but I'm more inclined to note connections from one poem to the next. I'm more aware of the boundaries created by sections. When I finished reading Part One (which includes one of my favorite poems in this collection, "Lot's Young Wife"), I wrote the word "choice" on a blank page in the back. Underneath it, I wrote "escape," and following an arrow, the words "their opposites?" This—the connection between choice and escape—is the question the first section of LaTour's book raised in me, and that the book subsequently answered as I continued to read.

More than one poem here focuses on the idea of motionlessness: "Life Still" in Part Two and "After Sitting with Christopher Smith's Still Life" in Part Three stand out in particular. Both poems turn the reader's gaze to still life paintings, and I ask myself what that frozen moment has to do with choice and escape. In "Life Still," nothing moves, but at the end, "She lets the dust settle / turning all but the lemons gray." In this case, not acting is itself an intentional act—one can choose to simply let the dust fall. And in "After Sitting with Christopher Smith's Still Life," the subject of the painting is both described and imagined, and while the woman herself isn't given agency, her body is. Again at the poem's end, "Isn't she more interesting / on her side, her belly sagging / a little toward the bed?" These occasions of agency are subtle but undeniably present and undeniably given weight.

"Lot's Young Wife" also provides an insight into this connection between choice and escape. While we see Lot's wife (whom I have always thought of without a name of her own) in the first stanza, initially, as "Edith, happiness," she goes through a series of names Lot gives her depending on his mood: "Miryam for her stubbornness when she wanted / to buy the best lamp oil," for example. Lot's wife accepts her choice of "not wanting to run away," and she would, I believe, choose it again. This, to me, provides an eventual triumph over the husband who, at the poem's end, "called her what she was."

The main takeaway I bring from this collection is that escape is always possible, though it might not be the kind of escape easily noticed by the world. We may not always be able to "Take your golden eggs, escape the garden. / Release all the dogs and run" as "Marriage Advice" would have us do—but that makes our escapes no less valid or lasting. Escape does not necessarily involve movement; we can also escape through what surrounds us, through the plain objects of our still lives, or just by remaining motionless in the world.

A last thought comes from the title poem: "How extravagant, the simple unfolding of a bud / this time of year" and how "much we want to remain" as a result of that. These poems make me want to notice more, to slow down. Another of my notes in the back of the book reads "small choices, small happinesses—both can be important." I'll return to this book often, but I'm glad to know, even if I seem to be still, that probably isn't all that is happening.


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