Three Poets of Myth and Memory

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Mothers of Ireland by Julie Kane (Louisiana State University Press, 72 pp., $17.95).
Women in the Waiting Room by Kirun Kapur (Black Lawrence Press, 82 pp., $16.95).
Fablesque by Anna Maria Hong (Tupelo Press, 66 pp., $17.95).

Julie Kane’s newest book, Mothers of Ireland, a fearless feminist exploration of inheritance, opens with “The Good Women” who, in a moving tableau, “surface at wakes / like earthworms after rain.” The young speaker scrutinizes these maternal figures dressed in black as they undertake traditional funeral rites to comfort the living, their offerings ranging from the poet’s litany of baked goods they assemble to the prayers they dispense “like milk / from each massive breast.” The poem unfolds across short lines whose syntax skillfully builds dramatic tension; crisp imagery underscores the claustrophobic feel of rituals strictly defined by convention and blood ties. Although markers of lineage place the speaker among these women—“[R]ed-haired, broad-hipped / for easy babies”—she is nonetheless ambivalent, keenly aware of her resistance to roles she’s expected to play. Confessing her discomfort with this legacy, she views herself as a “betrayer” whose “God bless you’s / have no authority behind them.” Rejecting one’s assigned role, she soon sees, creates an unsettling distance: she feels “awkward as the corpse / in this army of grace.”

“The Good Women” is also a powerful ars poetica that deftly reveals this collection’s ambitious reach: the wry humor, narrative verve, and musical inventiveness that are trademarks of Kane’s poetics. Written in 1973, the poem also honors an ancestral resilience that echoes throughout this deeply nuanced collection. No wonder Kane recited “The Good Women” from memory on the opening night of a graduate workshop when the group’s leader, Anne Sexton, asked students for their poems: it is a powerful declaration of allegiance to female kinship and poetic truth-telling. Kane’s recollection of this tragically short-lived workshop, published in the 2017 issue of The Dark Horse, offers further tribute to a mentor and forebear whose influence continues to resonate.

In this, Kane’s fifth full collection, we encounter powerful evidence that individual lives weave a larger history. Resonant genealogical detail brings to life the experiences of immigrant ancestors while interrogating the intoxicating currents of heritage in a variety of poetic forms. “Inheritance” pays witness to family experiences of the Famine and the ripple effect of trauma. Meditating on the mechanics of gene transcription, Kane imagines the plight of parents watching their children starve, wondering “do thymines, adenines // absorb the echoes of a parent’s screams?” The villanelle’s turns lead her to a powerful conclusion:

Like spools of film with horror movie scenes in which our own progenitors performed, those spiral loops of thymines, adenines

roll on inside us, soundless and unseen. …………………………………………………………………(5)

While Kane’s ability to harness the villanelle’s full dimensional range is impressive (this poetic form was her dissertation subject), she is equally versatile in other forms—the sestina, ghazal, pantoum, sonnet, and prose poem are all skillfully employed to counter the silences of the past. Whether she is revisiting family history, or exploring the vagaries of romantic love, the trauma of addiction, or the role of mother figures in life and art, these personally affecting narratives extend their reach to create an illuminating cultural history. Traveling through time from the poverty-stricken villages of Ireland to Massachusetts’ diasporic enclaves to Louisiana’s vibrant artistic communities, Kane locates moments of healing and grace that are richly imagined and beautifully rendered.

Kirun Kapur’s Women in the Waiting Room is an inventive, lyrical follow-up to her prize-winning debut volume, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (Elixir Press Antivenom Award, 2013), a dynamic exploration of personal and historical memory. Kapur’s verse is informed by Hindu mythology, documentary material, and the intricacies of inherited forms whose constraints, like those of Kane, offer a vital means of resistance and healing power. The central subject of Kapur’s new collection is the vitality and vulnerability of the female body, offering a cultural critique that is both timely and urgent.

Revisiting youthful years in Waikiki, “Girls, Girls, Girls” follows carefree evenings spent along “the length of beach where lipstick / sunsets smudged and magazines would shoot and caption, Paradise.” Here, in “posh hotels,” young women waited “for some nice man / to buy us drinks from the bar.” But paradise, as the poet knows, is an illusory construct. A friend’s tearful self-recrimination at hiding the truth about an abuser prompts the speaker to a moving reconsideration. Memories surface in quick succession, including the friendly noodle shop owner who’d “chat about Hanoi, warm water in canals,” only to resurface years later in the news for “smuggling women in refrigerated trucks.” Kapur muses further on the calculated risks her friends learned to take:

We liked to swim along the south shore when the tide was right.  You had to time your dive or crack your head against the reef. More than once a girl washed up. Sometimes they named her on the news…. …………………………………………………………………(6)

The conversation between the two women stalls and advances; their voices blend as they wrestle to reconcile their past selves with present wisdom. But they find little resolution. Kapur’s characteristically cinematic descriptions and syntactical control create a potent meditation that seeks to confront the silences of the past even as it uncovers the sexual and economic exploitation rife in exotic spaces that peddle the promise of escape.

Kapur frequently trains her gaze on what we prefer not to see in order to reveal and critique the narratives we are trained to construct—this approach is especially evident in a sequence of poems titled “Hotline” which juxtapose a volunteer’s experience of responding to callers’ accounts with the practice of her poetic art. The language of confession, conversation, and official filed reports collides, forming a forceful meta-conversation about beauty, violence, and truth. Several remarkable ghazals intertwined throughout the collection engage in similar aesthetic deliberation. Kapur makes astute use of the form’s fragmentation. “Steubenville Ghazal” explores a notorious rape case involving sexual assaults perpetrated by a high school football team whose members also circulated videos and photographs via social media. Here, the repetends’ chiming of “him” creates a hypnotic reminder of the way legal cases unfold to minimize predatory behavior and erase the physical testimony of women. “Red Lilies Ghazal” looks to how art and the natural world provide consolation even as the body negotiates pain to ask, “What I? Which She? Who’s writing this self? / A girl, years of girls, have escaped from my mind.” The speaker of “Uselessness Ghazal” seeks kinship with an ancient thinker, wrestling with the philosophical implications of accepting suffering; at the same time, she confides her frustration at trauma’s hold and the way that memory creates a troubling undertow for survivors of sexual violence, noting “Change and time, these were your constant thoughts. / Centuries on, these are my useless comrades, too, Heraclitus.”

Kapur’s unerring eye and ear are always attentive to imbalances of power within the body politic. But time and the body’s own invulnerability are equally important subjects for this poet. The book’s title sequence is an unflinching meditation on terminal illness and the power of female friendship. Despite her friend’s suffering, the speaker asserts “…some part of us / continues forward, the opposite / of still, living on in the body’s / dismemberment.” Generously conceived, Women in the Waiting Room is capacious in its compassionate reach to capture a chorus of voices that radiate necessary truths.

Age of Glass (Cleveland State University Press, 2018), Anna Maria Hong’s award-winning debut, established her reputation as an innovative sonneteer able to reinvent the narratives of earlier eras. Hong’s second book, Fablesque, winner of Tupelo Press’ Berkshire Prize, extends this approach, adapting a compendium of forms to create a vividly contemporary and uncanny bestiary. Her playful determination to subvert convention shines brightly in this new collection.

The book opens with “Heliconinus Melpomene,” a poem that resides somewhere in the idiosyncratic terrain between prose poem and flash fiction—a perfect vehicle to explore its interplay of horror and survival. The speaker recollects her father’s capture at the hands of North Korean soldiers, his ingenious escape, and the aftermath of his life in the United States with its series of successes, tragic setbacks, and traumatic illnesses. He is left, finally, “living out the last decades of his life in a suburban twilight of / glamour and glory”—a tale he recounted “with drama but not much / emotion, as if he were recalling a sea monster he’d caught as a / boy with just a paperclip and a ball of string.” His daughter, however, views this life narrative as a “parable of his own cunning and lack of disabling empathy,” finding a powerful metaphor in the natural world: the butterfly species of the poem’s title whose name references the muse of Tragedy and whose adaptations for survival are stealthy and numerous:

………………………………….The Viceroy appears almost identical to the Monarch butterfly, emulating its size, shape, and markings to avoid being eaten. The Monarch’s diet of milkweed makes it toxic to the birds that would make it their prey. …………………………………………………………………(3)

In the course of this and other poems, Hong interrogates the tropes of storytelling at the heart of myth and fairy tale, widening the net to include human and natural history. The familiars of these poems appear as diverse players through feminist revisions (a wolf “entrapped by its cravings,” the English mole that becomes a personal avatar, a siren whose Monday goals are to “—rip out the knees of the patriarchy / —practice histrionic but alluring singing / —do laundry”). Through surprising language and unexpected turns, Hong’s quest locates the fabular in human interactions, and personal memory is handled with verve and wit.

The book contains several short sequences that amplify and extend her themes. A group of “Interiors” offers a shrewd critique of architectural features: the speaker’s wry commentary mocks the vagaries of renovation jargon, exploring the imperial nostalgia that often underlies catalog clichés. The wall crack in an Etruscan-style basement recalls “the mysterious kohl-rimmed eyes of Theban princes depicted / on some first-century BC urns,” while the sealant applied to its surface “clearly serves as an allegory for the inscrutable, compliant / nature of all those dark-haired people in other lands” (“Basement Wall Crack”). Accompanying notes on product availability skewer cultural assumptions with a deadpan accuracy: “While such Orientalist pap is rare in / basements, anyone wanting to buy it deserves what they get. / It’s a crack, and you can have it.” Hong’s interest in the revelatory power of found language is evident in “Astral Sonnets,” a short sequence skillfully fashioned from cut-up copies of Scientific American. Collectively they demonstrate how the language of scientific inquiry reflects our anxieties and desires, as well as a compulsion to project our likeness onto all things we encounter, as if to do so would provide a stay against uncertainty. In this absorbing and confident second book, Hong’s vision of nature informs her vision of what it means to be human—imprinted by culture, memory, history, and conflict—in poems that are provocative, wise, and dazzling.