May 1998

R.T. Smith Book Review


R.T. Smith

R.T. Smith
  Muffy Bolding
  John Kinsella
  Richard Foerster
  A.F. Moritz
  Miriam Levine
  Louis Armand
  David Shevin
  Stellasue Lee
  Adrian C. Louis
  David Sutherland
  Gregory Djanikian
  Paolo M. Bottigelli

J.M. Spalding
  R.T. Smith

William Heath

Douglas Thornsjo

Buy this book Death and Transfiguration
Poetry by Kelly Cherry


LSU, 1997; 56 pages
Our Price: $9.56 ~ You Save: $2.39 (20%)  

Difficult as it is to convey in a brief review the intellectual candor and spiritual lucidity of Kelly Cherry’s poetry, it’s worth a try, as her most recent collection serves up a harrowing series of emotional experiences transformed to hymns of affirmation by a scrupulous and surprising lyrical imagination. The assignment Ms. Cherry has given herself, or that she has been given to, in Death and Transfiguration, is risky because it is not uncommon—how to survive loss, a subject always appealing to armchair psychologists, self-help blockbusters, and desperate sentimentalists.

But Cherry is appropriately provisioned for the journey through personal tragedy. Her broad frame of reference (her mother’s swans "do not stop at Coole," another’s dead mother "is flying/ upward to light, like Hayden’s lark"), her humor ("Except God, who is a fish with scales like windchimes."), and her exquisite sense of timing prevent her from taking easy paths. She is also willing to transgress the standard tests for adequate writing taught in workshops. When she closes "My Mother’s Stroke" with a skein of adjectives— "Your wondering, admiring, loving, listening daughter." —one can imagine more predictable poets raising their disparaging scorecards, all citing a failure of economy, but the list fulfills the sense of difficult restraint carried in the poem’s figures of speech; finally, the narrator is overwhelmed with the need to say it all desperately. Another of my favorite transgressions of overcommon sense appears as the brief final stanza of "Epithalamium," a poem honoring her parents’ golden anniversary:

With his arthritic fingers
He threads the needle
She can no longer see
The eye of.

Zing! That awkward grammatical structure—approached warily, isolated, suspending—achieves the difficulty and dearness of the act it describes. And I can’t help supplying the phrase we usually associate with those final three words. "The storm." The quiet, mortal storm of getting ready for inevitable separation.

Musical and religious without identifying a particular faith, these poems are not afraid to declare themselves concerned with prayer, "Miracle and Mystery," revelation. The book culminates in the extended "Requiem," the exciting "logical conclusion" of such a meditative collection. In this poem, Cherry conducts an investigation and presents an argument—to the self, primarily, the proper domain of all crucial arguments, as Yeats suggested—concerning the nature of God and God’s relation to pain, memory, and survival.

Moving and impressive as the concluding poem is, some of the shorter lyrics remain my favorites. Perhaps one of the most common emotional conundrums in contemporary life, yet one scarcely addressed by poets, is the question of one’s attitude toward an ex-spouse for whom one does not entertain scorn. Cherry has opened this door with her characteristic precision and compassion, remembering her ex: "The silence surrounding you/ then was extraordinary. As if you were a star,/ owning the space around you, and burning, and far." The timing here is exquisite, and that final comma suggests that she understands exactly the way pace of delivery determines impact. In "From Venice: Letter to an Ex-Husband," she displaces her unspoken and complex feelings toward the man by describing an imagined journey on a bronze horse, which the narrator rides "Through salt air and/ The sinister, traitorous streets, Sculpture’s bride." I can’t dismiss the associations with Browning’s Duke and his collection, "‘Neptune taming a seahorse,/ Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me," and if Cherry’s poem is more withholding, it’s quieter intricacies are undiminished by the comparison.

Through miscarriage, loss of family, divorce and discouragement, Cherry never casts herself as victim or heroine. Instead, she looks inward, exploring her responses and the ways that language can clarify (or occasionally obscure) the experiences, while resisting nostalgia. Her most topical and pessimistic poem, "A Diminishing Chord Modulating into Nihilism," finds "philharmonic sound" in catastrophe, and its final note of despair is not quite convincing. More authentic, it seems, more embraced and understood, are the personal losses and the questions of faith and revival that accompany them. In yet another collection, sure and skillful, pertinent and sometimes terrified and scalding, Kelly Cherry has also made language fly "Upward to light, like Hayden’s lark."

—R.T. Smith


R.T. Smith: Book Review Kelly Cherry
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