Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review of Dannye Romine-Powell's "A Necklace of Bees" (Wild Goose, Winter 2008)

Review of Dannye Romine-Powell’s A Necklace of Bees (58 pages, University of Arkansas Press)

Do not go to Dannye Romine-Powell’s new book of poems, A Necklace of Bees, seeking comfort or solace. There is none. Frankly, reading this volume left me feeling jittery and disconsolate, nearly overwhelmed with all-too-familiar feelings of loss, guilt, failed attempts at compensation, stifling expectations of perfection, and the common misunderstanding of the motivations behind those expectations. In other words, the poems masterfully achieve what should be the ultimate goal of poetry, to help us experience our own lives a bit more deeply, a bit more consciously, and a bit more honestly.
Southern women, it seems, may be the greatest stoics of all. They routinely outlive, or perhaps more accurately, outlast their parents, husbands, all-too-often their own sons, as well as other, less familiar tormentors, all with a fortitude made apparent by keeping, despite everything else, “Forks / with forks. Spoons with spoons” (“Daddy Tosses Them Down”) and the dignity of “nails polished red // a row of lemons on the sill (“The Villa”). Both the mother in and the speaker of Powell’s poems remind me of my own mother who has survived an abusive parent, tightly confining expectations, abusive husbands, and masochistic children to finally retire to peace and the possibilities of unencumbered love.
We encounter the mother’s frustrated attempt to maintain dignity in her family in several poems in the book, including “The Avalanche,” where a headstrong and foolish father:

the old green Chevy
on the side
of a mountain
somewhere out West
and bet my mother
he could start an avalanche
by kicking
a single rock
into another. No,
she said, no, please
don’t, Dan, please.

We see it again in “Daddy Tosses Them Down,” where the father thrilled to have taught the baby to recite the rhyme, “I love little pussy, / her coat is so warm . . . / And if I don’t hurt her, / she’ll do me no harm,” while the mother “wears pearls / and tries to keep things smooth / and in order.” The presence of the daughter, whom one assumes to be the grown-up speaker of the poems, in each of these poems, foreshadows her own later suffering.
The speaker’s torment is not, however, initiated so much by her father as it is by her son and his alcoholism. We read in “The Gaudy Clothes of Tourists” that “My son’s death / is incomplete, only a fear, though/ as his drinking increases, a fear that daily grows.” In “Everyone Is Afraid of Something,” the speaker tells us:

I’m afraid
my son will die alone in his apartment.
I’m afraid when I break down the door,
I’ll find him among the empties -- bloated,
discolored, his face a stranger’s face . . . .
Another fear of mine: that it will fall to me
to tell this child her father is dead.

The speaker has a somewhat different approach to alcoholism among the men in her life than did her mother. Whereas the mother focused on maintaining a façade of normalcy, as in “My Mother’s Lips,” where she emphasizes, “Don’t dare embarrass me,” the speaker focuses on the painful necessity of preparing the next generation for the inevitability of loss. In “Everyone Is Afraid of Something,” she contemplates how to prepare her granddaughter for the loss of her father:

Perhaps I should begin today stringing
her a necklace of bees. When they sting
and welts quilt her face, when her lips
whiten and swell, I’ll take her
by the shoulders. Child, listen to me.
One day, you’ll see. These stings
are nothing. Nothing at all.

Perhaps the only sense of hope one can gain from these poems is that after prolonged, stoic tolerance and the inevitable tragic conclusion, there is the possibility of renewal. This is apparent in “How Her Words Entered Me When She Called to Say My Father Had Died at Last after Ten Months of Pain,” a poem whose sense of release is reminiscent of that found in Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour:”

entered me the way we entered the coral rock caves
at the edge of Venetian Pool, if we could muster the nerve
to brave the caves at all and, because we were girls,
did so only on a dare from some cowlicked
fifth- or sixth-grade boy because we had to duck
under and make our way blind through the black,
watery depths until we reached a ledge
at the back of the caves where we sat panting
while the fear drained off, and now, chattering,
another breath, one more plunge, and we crashed
to the far opening until, still swimming, we burst
into light, lifting our wet faces to an anthem
of blue and green--released into Eden.

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