Book Review: Three-in-One from Blue Lyra Press
Self-Portraits by Susanna Lang
Year of Convergence by Jennifer Grant
God of Sparrows by Christina Lovin
Three chapbooks bound together as Delphi Series Vol IX (Blue Lyra Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
First, praise for the gathering of these three compelling chapbooks in one volume, IX, of the Delphi Series of Blue Lyra Press! Second, praise for the series itself and the whole idea of supporting chapbooks and poets in this way! Third, my sorrow at reading in the introduction that Blue Lyra Press seems not to be surviving the instability and uncertainty of the times, and this appears to be the last of the series. Fortunately, this book and others are still available at the press’s website, along with information about all the authors over the years.
Susanna Lang’s Self-Portraits is a set of poems that celebrate women artists—mainly visual artists, but also writers and women who work in various media. “Choreography,” about choreographer and installation artist Nicole Livieratos, is the poem that confirms me in a feeling that some of the poems might also contain a self portrait of the poet—“and that might be me”—or that any reader might also find herself depicted there, self-portrait as mirror. In “Self-Portraits,” about Käthe Kollwitz, “The same eyes look out from / her sketch at 60, my age now.”
It happens again in “Lost,” about Patti Smith, when the poem shifts from third person to first person. Just as looking at a painting or a photograph can invite a viewer to place herself in the picture, reading a poem can invite deep connection, even identification. And in “Self Portrait, 1620,” this becomes a way of confronting and accepting one’s own death, in a poem where the artist Sofonisba Anguissola has been tracking her own aging unto death in a series of self portraits, culminating in this one. “She meets her own gaze as easily as ours.”
In “Woman with a Double Bass,” the poem evokes a painting, the portrait of a woman musician, but the bass itself becomes a woman, too—“the woman’s arm draped around the instrument / like a sister—”—and so the poem seems to repeat the embrace, and all the poems in the book to repeat the sisterliness. Lang’s notes at the end acknowledge that the “poems grew out of conversations with women artists” and, based on counts made by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and other sources, a shared awareness that “women are underrepresented in publications and reviews, and…museums and galleries.” The sisterliness is generous and intentional, and it’s perfect to find this chapbook held in the same pages with two others by women poets.
Year of Convergence, by Jennifer Grant, continues that sisterliness, in celebrating such writers as Mary Oliver, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Bishop, Flannery O’Connor, and photographer Sally Mann, among others (including men). I loved this couplet in “Poem of an Ordinary Girl Reading Grace Paley’s Collected Stories as her Piano is Hauled Away”:
Until you and that damned metronome!
Still it ticks, ticks, ticks in my addled head.
While I was sorry to see the piano go, I was glad to see the metronome sent off to damnation! Another standout couplet, this one in “While Reading Bishop the Week of her Birthday,” demonstrates the excellent ordering of these poems:
What slow changes ensue
under wavering compass needles.
The compass needles evoke Bishop’s travels to South America, as well as the slowness or, at times, imperceptibility of change, and the needles’ slow wavering contrasts well with (while reminding us of) the annoying and unwavering tick, tick, tick of the metronome’s needle in the previous poem. Poets who worry about the order of their poems, take note and look closely at Jennifer Grant’s arrangement!
And the closing couplet of “Contemplating Convergence” hit hard as I read it in early January of 2021:
Both of us awaiting divinity
in a world of trumped triviality.
That word, “trump,” as an act of triumph in a card game, and, by extension, the game of life, will never be the same.
Year of Convergence is a tender as well as a fascinating book. It explores the convergence of Mary Oliver’s death and the departure of Grant’s son for college, two hard losses, and does so while engaging with other works via the cento or “patchwork” form of bringing together lines from other poets. It’s a short book that invites deep and repeated readings!
God of Sparrows by Christina Lovin opens with “Ice Storm,” and I’d just been through one as I read, remembering the crack of branches laden with ice and snow. In the second stanza “the sun comes back,” which hasn’t happened here yet, but we have seen “men with saw and axe prevail / upon the shattered places,” which sounds metaphorical as well as literal, and surely is. There are many birds in this book, and many trees, whether shattered or old and still living. I love the hope and the incantation in the last stanza of “The Invisible Present” and found it bracing as I entered the scary and stressful, yet promising, new year:
Let this current hour show itself before
its fleeting fire goes out. Let the future
hold what we had hoped for the present,
the past again be filled with forests.
Let the invisible present be illuminated
by the strong light of truth held up
by those who stand in answer to the only
question of the spotted owl: Who? Who?
Lovin’s concern for nature and earth’s creatures permeates the book. As she ponders her mortality in “As Much a Part of Earth,” she also ponders the “natural decomposition” visible in the woods around her. It prompts her to ask, “Is the lasting value of one’s life actually death: how / we return to soil, even housed and sealed? We do return…”
Awareness of mortality—and connection to trees—continues in “Tumor: First Day: Double Vision” when she says, “The tree should be cut down, sawn and hauled away, / but it is over sixty years old. I can’t bear to simply kill it.” I was struck by the echo of Susanna Lang’s phrase, “60, my age now,” a sisterly connection. And how the spruce in Lovin’s poem reminds me of the juniper in Jennifer Grant’s poem, “My Father’s Closest Friend Sings about my Nickname”: “Jennifer, Juniper, hair of golden flax / Jennifer, Juniper, longs for what she lacks.” Another sisterly connection. And how the damaged tree, like the sick speaker of Lovin’s poem, are of course worth saving, and must be saved.
Fortunately, “What Doesn’t Kill You” may make you stronger or make you smile. Despite the darkness in this poem, with its ebola and tobacco, and the presence of the serpent in Eden, I did smile at the end. The epigraph contains the good news that a “Kentucky company used local tobacco to help produce an experimental serum to fight Ebola.” And the last line, to quote a serpent, is “You will certainly not die.” I’m reading feeling the full poignancy of the arrival of early Covid-19 vaccines, as well as concern for the poet’s own health, but she definitely, with cleverness and irony, makes me smile. And she does it again, with her perfect closing poem, titled “Writing Blindly.” Yes, aren’t we all?
Susanna Lang at EIL
(containing “Studio Visit,” “Drawing,” and “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting” from Self-Portraits)
“Five-Hawk Day” and “Fledge” from God of Sparrows in Birds of a Feather at EIL
Review of Travel Notes from the River Styx by Susanna Lang at EIL
Excerpts from Christina Lovin’s Echo at EIL
Lovin Bug Villanelles as Valentines at EIL
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