Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Marsha Mathews' Northbound Single-Lane

Northbound Single-Lane by Marsha Mathews
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Marsha Mathews' first chapbook Northbound Single-Lane was recently published by Finishing Line Press in a lovely handcrafted-looking edition with a cover illustration of a magnified grasshopper that immediately drew me in.

Mathews' disarmingly accessible style kept me turning the pages through this 19-poem collection, and I appreciated the arrangement of the poems both chronologically in terms of the speaker's personal narrative but also, true to the title, directionally northward, albeit with a detour here and there.

And, of course, the final poem brings the speaker home both to her native Florida, the point of departure, but we also realize by this point in the collection that "northbound" has another meaning as well, as does "single-lane."  The speaker's decades-long journey, taken in the company of two daughters who occasionally aggravate but more often inspire, ends when she finds herself sitting alone but un-lonely, finally free from the domination of two powerful griefs, first for a father who passed away and second for a husband who walked away, on the dock her father built:  "On this dock I once watched/ the horizon through my father's eyes./ Cigar scent choked the salt./ I now see the ladder at the end of the fill."

By this point, the speaker has come a long way since a poem early in the collection, "Merry-Go-Whorl," in which the dissolution of a marriage was portrayed as a slowly dawning horror:

You snuggle
into this complacency
till one day
the person you love most
averts his face.
Living room walls open
& out prance
blue unbridled hyenas.
Your house crumbles
into a powdery rubble of questions.

In a later poem,  "Lone Goose," Mathews shows her skill for crafting an interwoven conceit when she compares the goose's morning call and its disruption of the fragile security of a tranquil lake to the fragile psychic security she has tentatively begun to build while taking refuge at the lake, also shattered by the same noise, like a jarring meditation bell.

The daughters appear as constants in the narrative, comfort amid the uncertainty.  In "Abigail's Antiques," one daughter panics her mother by practicing ballet steps oblivious to the breakable merchandise in the eponymous store, but Mathews gracefully turns the poem to make apparent what is ultimately of value to the mother:  "... for her, there's no breaking./ Even if she leaps."

This territory is risky when it comes to avoiding the maudlin, and Mathews doesn't always manage to steer completely clear of it, but she does avoid going over the edge.

And occasionally, a more caustic tone emerges, as in "The Sectioning," a pitch-perfect and in fact one of the strongest poems here:

The first time you see her
she is crying.  For weeks,
screams tear the air.

As you drive to the grocery store,
her voice rides in your temples.
You check the mirror,
sure that she is following.

The relatively long final poem is the natural culmination of the collection, and it begins compellingly:

On the dock my father built
I watch lights from beach houses
quiver toward me,
streak across Boca Ciega Bay.
The moon shoots itself
to the water.  Light spins, flashes
like Spanish doubloons.
They dazzle, tempt me with miracle.  
Yet the neighbor's dog howls.  
A gull pounds the air with its wings.  
A mullet slaps the surface.  
The grainy boards beneath my feet
are real enough.  What then?

Halfway through, the breakthrough:  "I remembered laughter." 

The closing lines of the final stanza leave us with the collection's most luminous imagery:

Tones draw into seawall's hollows,
lamp shells.  They cluster
& shine like pearls,
holding off everything

The speaker's quest for identity began in the opening poem, in which she as a girl injected a grasshopper with red dye because "I ached for something/ to inject myself with/ to make me shine."

In the final poem, the world makes its presence truly felt to the speaker, and is moved in turn by what she discovers in the penultimate stanza, "... music never before heard:/ my notes."

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