Two Offerings from Empty Bowl Press
HOLD FAST by Holly J. Hughes
Empty Bowl Press, 2020
THE BLOSSOMS ARE GHOSTS AT THE WEDDING: EXPANDED EDITION by Tom Jay
Empty Bowl Press, 2019
reviewed by Bethany Reid
Recently Empty Bowl Press sent me two books. I was expecting and looking forward to Holly J. Hughes’s Hold Fast; Tom Jay’s The Blossoms Are Ghosts at the Wedding was a complete surprise.
Hold Fast lived up to my every expectation. How could it not? Holly Hughes, herself, is a fascinating study. In addition to being an award-winning poet (Boxing the Compass, Sailing by Ravens, Passings) and anthologist (Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease), in addition to having spent decades in the classroom (for one aspect of which, see her book with Brenda Miller, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Living in a Busy World), Hughes spent a good portion of the last thirty years working at sea: in the salmon fisheries in Alaska, skippering a 65-foot schooner, and as a shipboard naturalist. Hold Fast encompasses all of these lives, as well as her Minnesota childhood, while offering readers a perspective both grounded and transcendent, mired uneasily in the past and calling readers to awareness for the sake of the planet’s future survival.
A feeling of “too late” pervades the book. “Cataracts” a doctor says (in the playful “EOYZP”), making the poet think “cold water, a mountainside, spray on my face.” But there’s also this weird hope that keeps knocking on the lid, wanting out. Both themes speak directly to my aging heart, not to mention my eyes. Whether writing about making jam or counting salmon, the book urges us to keep faith with the world. In “Approaching 52” (which I suspect was written a while back), Hughes writes:
She realizes she’ll never be a lion-tamer, tall hat and curling whip,
lions and tigers padding in circles on huge, silent paws,
she’s too late for Jacques Cousteau, balanced on the edge
of the boat, strapped into steel lungs, tilting back into the sea,
going on in this vein until “at some point the trajectory soaring up begins to arc / down.” Except then the poem shifts into unexpected territory:
Still, she dreams: Barnum & Bailey pull into town
at midnight, rasp and skreetch as cage doors yawn to release
the big cats, earth shakes as the elephants, freed,
stomp, trunk to tail, down Main Street.
Anyone who has read Hughes’s Passings, which is about extinct bird species, knows that her poetry tends toward the elegiac. Some of the poems in Hold Fast are literal elegies, for ancestors, for mentors, and for poets. One poem, “Heading Home,” is dedicated to Tom Jay and chronicles his work, counting salmon: “he dips the net, scoops up four in the first load, // calls out…” Knowing that the other book was waiting for me, I read this poem with special attention.
I knew very little about Tom Jay, except that he had been a friend of Holly’s and he had recently died. I read The Blossoms Are Guests at the Wedding straight through, and then I began rereading it more slowly. It’s a stunning book, on multiple levels, a collection of essays and poetry, with a section of photographs by Mary Randlett about the casting of a bronze sculpture, “Salmon Woman & Raven,” which now stands in Highland Park in Bellevue, Washington. When I began working on this review, I wrote down passages I might quote, and ended up with a document ten pages long. Someone could simplify The Blossoms as a primer on salmon and salmon habitat—in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere—but it’s also about indigenous peoples and language, community, and truth-telling (something the world needs just now). It isn’t lofty: he also writes about playing marbles as a boy and learning to water-witch. It’s practical. There is no political diatribe here, only a call to care for the earth and each other.
One aspect of the book that I can’t help but love is how Jay attends to words. Emerson called words “fossil poetry,” but Jay practices etymology not as digging for bones but as if reaching into water and bringing up for our view wriggling, alive creatures. In “Words Bear Nature’s Wisdom,” he writes: “I see etymology as a kind of divination, a revelation of the image, the meeting recorded in the heart of the word.” Also: “Words are an echoic web, a silk-ragged lace vibrant in a world woven by wind, rain and light; our spidery minds so nimble on its ancient net, the breathy braille of the mystery we weave, the paradoxical see-saw-saying of living.” In this essay, too, he takes apart the word book and shows its origin in beech; he shows us that script and writing are rooted in the act of scratching on bark.
Again and again, Jay circles back to our need for truth. “The truth is like a tree,” he writes in “Commons and Community”: “leaves catch the light, the bark protects the sap wood that circulates vitality, the dead heart wood holds the tree up in the wind, the leaves take in the light, the roots mine the ancient earth-born nutrients of the ancestors. The truth is like a tree. No wonder we troth, truce, trust and tryst in its shade.”
By the time I reached the poems, on page 141, I felt that I knew Tom Jay. I was reading poems written by a wise friend who had broken bread with me and taught me how to see more clearly. In his poem, “Storm,” for instance:
All night the storm
cracked and hissed in the treetops.
The old green gods
throw off their dark disguises
and dance in the fierce fault of night and day,
until the silent morning sun calls them home
behind their masks of cloud, wood and stone.
When I approached one editor with my idea for a review of Hughes’s book, he told me: “You’re her friend, you can’t be objective.” Perhaps it’s perverse of me, but the best books always feel to me as though they are written by my closest friends, that they were written for me. In this dark time of plague and politics, it’s a privilege to introduce these two people to you. I believe Hold Fast and The Blossoms Are Ghosts at the Wedding will befriend you, as well.
Bethany Reid’s two most recent books are Sparrow, which won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize, and Body My House(Goldfish Press, 2018). Her chapbook, The Thing with Feathers, was published as part of Triple No. 10 by Ravenna Press (2020). Her novel, Pearl’s Alchemy, took second place in PNWA’s 2014 mainstream fiction contest, and her short story, “Corinne, at Floodtime,” was a 2018 finalist for the Margarita Donnelly Prize at Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature for Women. Bethany taught English composition and American literature for 25 years. She and her husband live near their daughters in Edmonds, Washington, where she takes long walks, writes poems, and is hard at work on a mystery novel. Check out her blog at the link below.