The Urn by Karla Linn Merrifield
Finishing Line Press, 2010,
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom
Karla Linn Merrifield's new chapbook The Urn is dedicated to her husband Roger Weir, whose prostate cancer is in the final stage although it appears to have been in remission when at least some of these poems were written. She presents the chapbook's twenty-three poems both as a tribute to a still-living loved one (as opposed to a posthumous elegy, which can only be appreciated by the bereaved) as well as an exploration of her own grief as she comes to terms with the deferred but certain loss of her partner.
It is a brave undertaking, and the poems Merrifield shares with Roger and with us are especially moving in light of the circumstances we know inspired them, but most would stand alone even if we didn't have this knowledge.
Merrifield was an Everglades National Park artist-in-residence in 2009, and her fluency in describing nature is evident in the most finely crafted of these poems. Many describe the life in Florida that the author and her husband share.
The strong opening poem, "No Mainland Visible, Islands Only," ends with:
who else falls prey?
husks of spider crabs strewn
on this beach with candor
reply the chain is out of order
two red-shouldered hawks
eye me twice curve into
morning shredding mackerel clouds
When the author's tone occasionally falters or overreaches, the grieving speaker returns to nature as a source of strength and solace, and both form and content are back on sure footing.
"The Calling" begins:
The dapper clan of backyard avians
comes calling to celebrate
with me your cancer’s remission.
Chickadee, titmouse, junco, downy—
quartet in a spectrum of grays-to-black—
feather the sun this mild November morning.
One exception to the nature rule is the breezy poem "Soundtrack for the Man Who Wore Bow Ties with No Camera..." which hitchhikes up the coast and back in time to the New York of the '70s, deftly weaving Simon & Garfunkel song references with semi-nostalgic reflections of a carefree, dissolute past:
Those were my beret days of truant, sleazy hours
at play as ex-hippie-exiled-to-the-city,
tripping out on jazz combos at Storyville at noon
or late-night Bleeker Street blues,
with wine and a joint, a screw.
It was another November morning,
lifetimes ago. The promo man from Playboy
drove me in his slick ’59 machine
down by the schoolyard in Corona, Queens,
past the police station, over to Julio’s ’hood.
He snapped in the cassette and we listened
to Paul sing the gospel, believing we’d never
burn out; no one was ever going to die
because no one had, no one we personally knew.
But she returns to nature in the final two poems. The very last is set in Florida, but the one before, "Wake," is set in another wild place on the other side of the continent, where she describes an urn much larger than a mantle could hold, where ashes are scattered "in choppy waters off Orcas Island."
Still, I fancifully wish for the man
I have loved; so I whistle
for a kingfisher to chant this passage
with blue-spangled feathers and blue-
crowned calling above waves.
He will behold my bright bird up and down,
along, over his deep home,
this fjord where I give him living blue.
The best sort of gift is one given at the right time, and that's the beauty of this timely labor of love.