Friday, August 05, 2011

In the Palms of Angels by Terri Kirby Erickson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 132 pages
• Publisher: Press 53 (April 1, 2011)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1935708279
• ISBN-13: 978-1935708278

In one of her poems, “Miller Street,” Terri Kirby Erickson writes: “You can’t be something you don’t understand.”

The poet follows her own rule well. As I read through her newest collection, In the Palms of Angels, I was struck by how Erickson’s words become poetry when she peels away the extraneous and targets the bone beneath. Life, death, birth, illness, love and isolation, family, friends and neighbors. Erickson’s language and style is right for these simple truths, yet so complex in their wrappings.

At first blush, these lines are spare. Now and then, a cliché creeps in. “My Daughter’s Hair” misses, with visions of sunlight and kites and gardens, a daughter gathering flowers and angels running their fingers through her hair. That’s Hallmark fare.

But then Erickson hits her stride, and the simple becomes a shimmer of truth. You know it when you read it—it sends a faint shiver along that bone beneath. She is one who observes, as a poet must, finding that needed place between distance and immersion to frame her poem.

“Depression” makes the reader ache, and if you’ve ever felt its grip, “even light is too heavy for her to carry now” rings true. The woman in the poem “sees nothing / but the dull, brown jar where she spends her days alone,” and with that word-image of jar, brown, days alone, the full message is delivered, and leaves one aching with empathy.

“Cling Peaches” is a tender love note to a husband in a hospital bed, nearly lost, now being fed peaches with a spoon. “With cancer ravaging your fine/ Mind like a plague of hungry locusts” and “Your / Gaze is as tender as a bruise,” Erickson proves that everyday words can turn everyday life into the remarkable.

Family comes up often in this collection, and for the most part, Erickson reveals herself best through the portraits she paints of these people she loves most. “To My Brother Who Died a Virgin” captures the loss of a brother who never experienced intimate love.

All you ever knew of naked women was that wet,
wadded up magazine you and your buddies
found in a drainpipe. Their heads were thrown

back from their bare breasts like somebody socked
them in the jaw just before he took the pictures.

With that, we know it all. We know that unlived life, that untouched heart, that barren place where intimacy does not enter. Here is the grief for a loved one who never spills tears of joy at the most tender human connection. “What you / got instead were the sounds of boys snickering—/sodden photographs of strangers who did not love you.”

“Things We Should Learn in First Grade” gets right back to Dick and Jane and Sally, the primer from which so many of us were taught to read in public schools, only in Erickson’s version, “See Jane run because Dick is messing around with Sally.” Life will never be so plastic and perfect again as it is in kindergarten, and really, was it even then?

“Woman on the Phone” is another image that lingers on the mind long after it is read. That’s the entire meat of it, a young mother talking on the phone, and nearby her small son watching her with the adoration of a toddler. When he matures and falls in love with a woman, that adoration will rightfully turn elsewhere, but in this moment … his little face watches his mama like a sunflower turned toward its only source of light.

“Mrs. Listner’s Chickens” proves the poet can handle humor, juxtaposing an image of clucking chickens scurrying about with the woman who feeds them, “wattles wobbling under her chin.” It’s delicious.

“Wedding Days,” and mind the plural, is perhaps one of the most moving poems in this collection. Don’t ever doubt that love can’t last, as this poem cannot but convince otherwise. From young man to older, the poet observes the aging of her husband, and now, with “crease and crevice,” likes him better this way. Intimacy of this kind only grows better with time.

A similar theme comes up in “The Gardener,” in a newer love that is just beginning to sprout from a distance. A young woman watches the gardener from afar, and loves him, “not because / he is young or handsome, which he/ is not. It is his gentleness with plants,/ the way he tends to them like newborns,/ how he talks to them, no matter/ who is listening.”

These are the basics, the simple pleasures, the truest loves, the lasting passions, the common suffering of all. Even in “Roy Rogers Rides Again,” Erickson captures beautifully the childhood thrill of riding the penny pony in the store, as if into the wind, free, when all things seemed possible. And so with many of these poems, she finds the common experience, the one we all know, and reminds us—this is how it was, how it is, how it will always be, at very least in cherished memory.

If not a poet that stuns with word play, or complex structure, or new literary invention, or philosophical revelation, Erickson is the poet that remains accessible and open to any and all readers—and that has great importance. Hers is a quiet, even modest approach to the poetic that can momentarily fool the reader into thinking this can be missed. Don’t. This poetry shouldn’t be missed. Yes, I still prefer poetry that involves more discovery, more complex layers to relish on the hundredth reading. But Erickson will have a growing circle of fans when other poets gather dust for all their density. She will line up among those such as Maya Angelou, who are loved by the masses, who may never read poetry but for poetry like this—that resonates with a universal understanding of life and death and all that comes between, stripped bare.


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