Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review of Irene Honeycutt's "Before the Light Changes" (Wild Goose, Winter 2008)

Review of Irene Blair Honeycutt’s Before the Light Changes (Main Street Rag, 2008)

Irene Blair Honeycutt’s new collection of poems, Before the Light Changes, is a book you want to read in one sitting but can’t. Honeycutt’s over-arching narrative of working through an intensely personal loss makes you want to keep reading, but each poem carries its own catharsis, the cumulative effect of which would be overwhelming without the trip to the pantry, the distracting phone call, the night to sleep on it, or the weekend to recover your sense of equilibrium. These are, indeed, poems which knock you off your feet and leave you breathless. My own reactions as I read through them included at various moments a sympathetic sigh, a heart-rent “Oh, my,” and a sudden gasp of admiration at Honeycutt’s courage in telling this story and her frank but deft handling of such delicate matters as suffering loss and the necessary ambivalence of letting go.
The best poems in Before the Light Changes are the ones that deal most closely with the poet’s experience of losing her brother, some of which, according to the author, she cannot yet bear to read publicly. Poems such as “Where I’m Calling From,” “The Transfer,” and “When I Last Saw Him” are deeply personal, deeply moving, and deeply transformative, but what makes them work is that they are also hauntingly familiar. My first thought after reading “The Night Before He Died” was that nothing is strange here. The hospital gown, the rib cage rippling the skin, the memories of “checker games / we played on the floor, / using buttons and bottle caps . . .” are presented with such striking clarity that they seem to be my own memories and observations. This clarity makes the poems that much more harrowing, which keeps the reader from distancing himself, from thinking this is what happened to someone else.
In poem after poem the pattern repeats itself, the frankness and clarity making the experiences recorded here immediate, passing the understandable sense of urgency behind them on to reader. In the prose poem, “Fresh from Reading You, Merton,” the speaker asks frankly:

How can a Rescue Mission, after saving his life, evict him? Not a drug
addict, not an alcoholic Just bankrupt, cancer-ridden. What happens to
the homeless of his ilk? A company repossesses his car. A thief steals the
portable radio he’d bought at a garage sale.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If my brother were of your Order, would my heart find release?
I’m rereading you, Merton. I’d like to know.
While it is raining. While it is dark.

Similarly, in the partially found poem, “Marie Curie Announces Her Discovery,” a poem whose connection to the overall thematic development of the manuscript becomes clearer in the reading of subsequent poems, revealing another characteristic of the work here, the reader is transported through frank imagery to an experience of Curie’s own urgency and its relationship to that of the poem’s speaker.

In a mountain sanatorium,
almost blind,
her hands bearing
the stigmata of her beloved radium,
Marie, who had preferred her lab
to a great social place
in the sun,
dies exhausted
from the cumulative effects
of the mysterious rays.

Even poems that at first glance seem unrelated to the narrative that binds the collection feature remarkably sharp and clear imagery. In “Woman at the Salvation Army Store,” for example, we see the speaker as she might be seen by a clerk at the store:

She enters this store for the first time,
glances around, amazed by the light,
the cleanliness--aisles arrayed, beckoning.
She gravitates to Furniture, drawn
to an oak vanity, stares at herself
in the large round mirror before
opening a drawer.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The woman says she’s just browsing,
her first time here.
But it will never be her first time.
She knows that. Surely, the clerk
knows that as well.
She’s always been here, searching,
just as others have.

We also see her from within her own mind, and it is through these revelations that we come to recognize how intimately connected she may be to the “discarded” objects she examines:
My mother sat at this vanity.
Patted her cheeks with rouge,
spread Avon lipstick
onto her parted lips.
Sometimes she gave me
tiny samplers from her sales
kit--carnation pinks,
ruby reds, deep purples.
I dotted the inside of my wrist,
blended colors into new
shades, thinking I’d sell
them when I grew up.

This juxtaposition of external and internal perception serves to weave this poem as well into the fabric of the text as a whole and to remind the reader of his or her own inescapable implication in the all-too-mortal realities conveyed here:

The woman wishes she could fill a basket
with Good Health. She pictures
someone delivering the basket to her brother
who lies in Baptist Hospital 350 miles away
awaiting colon surgery.
He believes
She reminds herself.
He told her so just yesterday.
He cannot lose.

Every poem hopes to have images that stay with the reader. The images in these poems not only resonate, but haunt, making us return to them again and again. Even as they record the author’s journey toward loss, the poems themselves, as soon as we put the book down, become for the reader, in the words of the opening poem, albeit less tragically, an “absence that we tend.” One might wrongly assume from these notes that Honeycutt’s collection is a sequence of morose poems. In fact, however, what this book masterfully does is remind us of the truly important things we have to do “before the light changes.” As the speaker’s dreams tell her in the wonderfully short poem, “Dreams,” while “you carry a corpse around, / . . . you are [also] part of the sun.

No comments:

Post a Comment