Friday, May 21, 2010
Review of Malaika King Albrecht's "Lessons in Forgetting"
Review of Lessons in Forgetting
by Malaika King Albrecht
Main Street Rag, 2010, 48 pages, $7
First published in Wild Goose Poetry Review (www.wildgoosepoetryreview.wordpress.com)
Reviewing Malaika King Albrecht’s debut collection of poems, Lessons in Forgetting, feels a bit self-congratulatory. After all, I helped her revise some of these poems; I published three of them in Wild Goose Poetry Review; I helped her determine the arrangement of the poems; and I was the author who recommended the collection for Main Street Rag’s Author’s Choice Chapbook Series. I am certain that somewhere someone will say that it is inappropriate, maybe unprofessional, for me to write this review. The truth is, however, I don’t care, and if you read the book, neither will you.
Considering how strong these poems are and how vital this collection is, it would be a disservice to poetry readers not to recommend it. Poetry, it could be said, is the perfect blending of sound, imagery, meaning, and emotion. And each of the poems in Lessons in Forgetting succeeds on each of these levels. As a teacher of contemporary poetry and creative writing, one of the most difficult questions I face, repeatedly, is what makes a contemporary poem good. It’s a complicated question that can only be answered in sentences containing phrases like “yes, but” or “that, and.” It is easier and probably more useful to simply provide examples, and virtually all of the poems here can used for that purpose.
Take, for example, the poem “Riddle Song:”
Grocery bags in my arms,
I hip the front door open
and hear my father singing
to my mother,
I gave my love a cherry
that had no stone.
He stretches her right leg,
then slowly rotates it in circles.
She hasn’t walked in three years
or gotten out of bed in two.
I gave my love a baby
with no crying.
Her legs resist, the muscles
tight as fists. He massages
her leg nearly straight, moves
to the next one still singing.
A baby when it’s sleeping
it’s not crying.
The story of how I love you
it has no end.
Of course I’m crying
in the kitchen doorway.
I can’t see her from here,
but I’m hoping that she’s awake,
looking directly into his eyes.
He moves to her left arm,
tucked beside her body
like a broken wing,
and gently spreads it out.
The first thing one notices about this poem is the careful, methodical pace of the words, created by a preponderance of stressed syllables (typically 4 in as few as 6 syllables, lines 2 and 15 for example), and the precise attention to detail, which echo the patient gentleness of the father in the poem. One might also note the pointed alliteration in places, such as the beginning of the third stanza where the repetition of the velar “k” creates a sense of broken speech as the speaker struggles with her emotions. And finally, any reader would sense the almost-magical, gentle lyricism of the last line whether or not they could explain that it is created by the use of the word “gently,” the sounds (three alveolars--“g” and “s” twice and a final diphthong--unique as an endsound in this poem), and the fact that this line is the only perfectly iambic line in the poem.
Such subtle technical mastery is common throughout the poems in this book. There is, for example, the subtle separation of an adjective from its noun in “Winging It” (“she struggled to find the bird’s / name.” The extra moment the reader spends returning to the beginning of the next line to complete the thought seems to mimic the hesitancy and uncertainty of Alzheimer’s. There are clever internal rhymes, like “Benadryl pills” in “One Last Time,” and vital assonances that link one stanza to the next, “unsweetened tea / / She reaches . . . retrieves,” from that same poem.
Thus, any of these poems could be used as illustration of good contemporary poetry. What is more, however, confronted with the question, “What makes a good contemporary book of poems,” one need only extend one’s arm with Lessons in Forgetting held in their hand and say, “This,” this cohesiveness, this relevance, this intentional alternation of dark and light, this manipulation of emotion, surprise, and contrast, this chill and chuckle of recognition, this recording of the challenges of being human with such immediacy, such clarity, and such refusal to look away from the difficult moment that it deepens our experience and understanding of what it means to be human.
Malaika King Albrecht’s Lessons in Forgetting is an important collection because of its subject matter, dealing with Alzheimer’s, but it is an impressive collection because of the poetic mastery with which Albrecht records her experiences with and reflections upon that subject.