Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review of Joanna Catherine Scott's "Night Huntress"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Night Huntress, by Joanna Catherine Scott
Main Street Rag, 2008, 67 pages
ISBN: 9781599481074

There is prose poetry, and then there is poetry that looks like prose. Joanna Catherine Scott’s book Night Huntress is one of the best examples of true poetry in the guise of prose poetry that I’ve ever encountered. A lot of poetry today, prose or otherwise, seems prosy--no sense of rhythm or lyricism, no sense of the line. Despite being arranged on the page more like paragraphs than traditional lined poetry, the poems in Night Huntress are unmistakably poetic. Scott herself questions the classification of these as prose poems. She says most of them were initially delineated but were changed to a denser prose style in a last minute editorial decision, which would explain why, as I read the poems, I kept pausing as if there were line breaks, and why I felt they were the most poetic, most lyrical prose poems I had ever read.

But little of that matters to any but other poets and perhaps the more astute readers of poetry who recognize lyricism when they hear it. What does matter to most readers is the story, in this case, the compelling story of a tragic accident and the lives it affects. Scott possesses the true writer’s gift, the gift of empathy, the ability to see inside another’s pain, loss, hope without being blinded by it. The calm, almost objective clarity with which Scott relates the story in these poems is heart-rending. The final stanza of “At the Grave” illustrates the beautiful and intricate detail that Scott, encompassing, like the skilled painter, background and foreground, uses to make images and events become experiences:

"Crows sit in the trees. They are like professional mourners, with their black robes and their harsh cracked voices and simulated grief. One of the boys goes to stand under a tree, looking about him for a stone, but the graveyard is fastidiously cared for, not a stone in sight that does not bear a name. So he takes off his shoe, with the liturgy behind him, and flings it up into the tree, and the crows rise in a great black clatter, big as dogs, barking and rushing back and forth, as though the casting of the shoe has broken up the tree itself, and it has risen in a rage."

And yet, Scott never tells the reader what to feel, but plunges us headlong into a stream-of-consciousness that creates the experience so vividly, so honestly, on all its levels that certain feelings are inescapable. The reader is drawn into the various perspectives surrounding the accident right from the start. In the first poem, “How They Insist,” the narrator of these poems, whose identity will only become clear much later in the narrative, reflects on the difficult period of transition to adulthood where loss seems so common and so tragic:

". . . how they will, how they insist it seems, generation after generation, before they are full grown, when they are right there on the cusp, right there between the pupa and the full-blown moth, right there, poised in metamorphosis, with no thought of what has come before, who has done it, no thought of all the flower-decked crosses up and down the roads, give in to some compulsion from another world, a world that wants them now, this minute, just the way they are, teetered on the brink of opening."

Scott’s view of the accident is comprehensive. She thinks of every perspective and of every moment before, during, and after the event itself and relates them seemingly from the inside, as if they were hers or those of someone so close to her that maintaining the objectivity that permits the clarity the poems convey should be impossible. Yet it is that seemingly impossible objectivity which make the poems work as in this excerpt from “At the Grave:”

"They have all come, the friends of the dead girl and the ruined boy. Even the bus boy from the nightclub has come, his face ashen with responsibility. They have brought flowers with them. They hold them in their hands. “Ashes to ashes,” says the priest, and , “dust to dust.” The flowers surge into the sunlight. They eddy at the surface of the dug red grave, as though the air inside is too dense for them to fall."

It is difficult to believe the experiences are not her own, that she is not the dead girl, the ruined boy, the mother or father or friend of the dead girl, the father of the ruined boy, and finally, and most completely and perhaps most factually, the mother of a friend of the dead girl who recognizes in the sheer proximity of tragedy our own intimate involvement in life and loss, whose comfort is shaken to the core by this, sending her on an introspective journey into the value and nature of life. It is this vicarious journey which the reader gets to undertake through Scott’s incredibly detailed and comprehensive narrative. Thanks to Scott’s ability for empathy, her talent for writing poetry whose secret message is not just “me, me, me,” but which enables the reader to say “me, too,” that makes even just reading the book a cathartic, life-changing, life-deepening experience not to be forgotten. I am often impressed with the work of poets. For this work, however, it would be more accurate to say that I am grateful.

1 comment:

  1. This book has been on my to buy list for a while. I really need to just break down and get it! Great review :)