Passing Through Humansville by Karen Craigo

Passing Through Humansville by Karen Craigo
Sundress Publications, 2018

Cover art by Charli Barnes at Charcoal Studio 
Image credit Peter Bagi

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor

I met Karen Craigo once, briefly, at an AWP Conference. (She probably doesn’t remember this.) She was on a panel, she was with Mid-American Review then, and everything she said was so honest and made such perfect sense. I so admired her! At that time, I thought of her as an editor and was delighted to learn she was a poet when I stumbled upon her chapbook Stone for an Eye and reviewed it. She wowed me. She still wows me!

I’ve just been reading her book Passing Through Humansville, aware of how proud I am of all my EIL poets, and especially proud when their books contain poems first published in Escape Into Life, but, to quote Karen Craigo in “No Room,” a poem about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, “It’s wrong to make this / all about me.” But that’s what happens sometimes: you connect with a poet, with a poet’s poems. With a particular poem or a particular book. You get it, you love it. And that’s, I hope/believe, what poetry should/can do: grab you and never let you go.

So, poem by poem, I was all caught up in Passing Through Humansville, proud as I said, that I’d picked some of these poems for EIL, when I came to “Field Trip,” and it walloped me. I got swept up in the school bus field trip of it, going along as a kid to the butterfly house, or as a mom/chaperone, like the speaker, learning about migrating monarchs and “a mourning cloak,” a particular butterfly that survives to keep laying eggs, as the docent explains.

               …She keeps going
          till she dies, he told me,
          and at forty-five, with a baby,
          I relate.

I started late as a mother, too, so I’m right there with her, utterly inside her delicate, gorgeous moment at the end, in sunlight, her marvelous risk in the last two lines: “gold, gold, gold, gold, / gone.” And I burst into tears, but, whoa, it was one of the poems I’d chosen, one I’d always loved, one that had just grabbed me again and would not let me go.

Oh, how I thanked her for the comic relief of the next poem, “Samhain,” directly following the breathtaking gold.

          It’s the night when the veil is thinnest—
          this world, the other, rustle the same curtain
          with their breath. The veil between having
          and not having Milk Duds is barely present,
          only three to a box.

I love you, Karen Craigo! (You complete me.)

I relate, as well, to the title poem, “Passing Through Humansville,” which, unless she’s kidding us in her note at the end, is a real Missouri town, as well as the perfect metaphor for being alive. Here are the first five lines:

          Twice today, I’ll slip into and out
          of Humansville, both coming and going,
          but now tendrils of fog span the road,

          the layer of white like an old lady’s hair
          spread out behind her in rapture.

I’ve driven through fog like that. (And I’ve got old lady’s hair.) There’s a bicycle-riding woman in her town of passage. I’ve got a guy I like to call “bicycle man” in my small hometown. I’ve got to let Karen Craigo know! (Via this review?) I’ve got to write “bicycle man” a poem he’ll never read. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, how do I do it without exploiting a fellow human?)

Astonished again, reading her book on Father’s Day, I encounter “Advent,” all about Joseph, the perfect father, the one who accepts a pregnant young woman as his wife, encountering my own origins along with Jesus’s. Today in church, my pastor spoke of Job. Craigo quotes the Book of Job in the epigraph to her poem “What Springs From the Ground,” which begins:

          To be human, or to be any
          good at it, you have to study
          the rain: how each fat drop
          slaps the wooden stairs just
          like a mad palm, and together
          the drops explain the sound
          of one hand clapping.

Craigo offers her own take on Job and then gut punches me again with the next poem.

          Mary of Bethany 

          In church today a woman
          rubbed the bald spot of a man
          she loved, and did it all the way
          through the message, the offering
          and meditation. I know.
          I opened my eyes to check.
          And isn’t that God, touching us
          where we’re most exposed,
          loving even our emptiness,
          those places soft with down.

Yes, that’s it, isn’t it? What God is. 

Basically, these are all gut punch poems. Poems from the gut, from the heart, trusting the simplicity of words and brevity of form to carry the complexity of feeling that is humanness. Yes, darn it, we all live in Humansville together. We might as well acknowledge it. We could be as kind and gentle as the speaker’s husband in “When We Find a Hurt Mouse,” who can kill it to “save it / from hours of suffering” as my mother once killed a cat she’d hit with her car by backing up over it. Sounds brutal, but, in the moment, was the kindest thing she could do.

As I said, I was reading this book on Father’s Day and had just read Craigo’s tribute to her father in The Marshfield Mail newspaper, so I recognized the salt lick when I read about it in this stanza from “Inventory.” I like her dad. Now I miss him, too.

          Always leave things better
          than you found them, Dad would say,
          picking up spent shotgun shells
          and dropping them in his pocket.
          Near the end, he gave up hunting,
          put a salt lick on a stump for deer
          and watched them from his window.
          Not that it gained him anything.
          A doe still comes and licks the ground
          where rain dissolved his offering.

What an honor it is to pass through Humansville with Karen Craigo.


Karen Craigo at EIL (5 poems, including “Field Trip”)

Karen Craigo, Mother’s Day 2015 at EIL 

Karen Craigo in CatOber 2016 at EIL

Humansville, Missouri

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