Friday, March 6, 2009

Review of Brenda Graham's "How Sound Carries Over Water"

Review of Brenda Graham’s How Sound Carries Over Water (Main Street Rag, $14, 59 pages)

I think Brenda Graham and I grew up in the same place, a place with a Red Dot Store, a mill village (or trailer park), disappointing fathers, and an empty swing singing “its unoiled song” (“Any Other Man’s Daughter Would Be Crying”), a place where everyone else’s Daddy seemed kinder than the one who “makes me pick my own / switches from the hedge, stings my legs, [warning] You’d better not whine.”
The poems in Graham’s first collection, How Sound Carries Over Water, are very familiar to me, and not just because this is the third book of poems I’ve read this year about growing up in an alcoholic and impoverished home in the South, nor just because that setting is similar to the one I was born into, but because Graham does the hard work of the poet. She goes back into memory to find the images that reveal the deeper truths about the places we live, and then she tries on word after word and phrase after phrase until she finds the one way those images can be recorded such that the reader is transported to the time, place, and reality she writes of.
The poems of How Sound Carries Over Water are mostly confessional and accessible. They are divided into three sections. The first section, “The Bones of Home,” creates a sort of childhood family portrait, albeit a family portrait from hell. These poems show us a home characterized by “temper-cracked walls” (“Mitsy”) where even the family dog, named Good-for-Nothin’ Bitch, keeps returning to “colorless crosses / as if they were something worth coming back to.” It’s a home of disappointment, molestation, and ultimately, violence, as the reader sees in one of the collection’s strongest poems, “Shame”:

I want to be blind to the rocky yards
I pick my way through on the way
to our house, my sister’s hand a bud in mine.
Blind to the shattered glass

that haloes my mother’s head, the way
she lies, crumpled, at the bottom of the porch steps,
my father at the top, hurling goddamns
and empty whiskey bottles,

the neighbors in robes and slippers,
pulled from sleep to see our family on display.

The second section of the book, “Dream within a Dream,” tells the story of the speaker’s inevitably doomed marriage, a marriage that begins with laughter in “Beds” as the couple fall through the middle of single beds they’ve “shackled” together with belts only to have their “thrashing” “loosen the knots.” The poems in this section are remarkable for the subtly suggestive language. Even the apparently happiest poems are marked with words whose double-entendre suggest an inexorable falling apart, an inescapable silence. The speaker says in “The Vase”

Once upon a time, I tried
to mend our conversations
that heated up

like a glass blower’s furnace.
Soon enough, I learned to treat
the melted, twisted stuff
with a cold blast of silence.

The third section of the book, “A Backwards Sort of Rising,” is aptly named as the poems in this section make clear the speaker’s understanding of how the past haunts the present, and of the need to go back and deal with that past before “rising” will be possible. The section begins with the speaker in a dangerous place, contemplating self-harm in “Cardinal:” “I’ve had the urge myself, / wondering if I had what it took / to shatter my rippling image.” But then she moves through “Recurring Dream”s of her father drunk and goes “Back to Avondale Drive” where “Thunder clouds of anger / / didn’t gather in the corners, roll / from room to shadowed room” and even revisits her “grandfather’s / fingers like gum erasers against your nipples” (“Fat”) and finally begins to “see a bit of green worth saving” (“After the Hail Storm”) and the possibility that “The Light in This House Is Changing.”
In sum, while the poems in How Sound Carries Over Water tell the story of a fragile, uncertain success, their own success as poems is neither fragile nor uncertain. They are strong and worthy of being read.

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