Traction by Mary Makofske (Ashland Poetry Press)
In Traction, awarded the 2011 Richard Snyder Award from Ashland Poetry Press, Mary Makofske follows in the tradition of her previous books, The Disappearance of Gargoyles (Thorntree Press) and Eating Nasturtiums (Flume Press). Once again, we are privy to the workings of a seasoned woman poet both meticulous and skillful at her craft and in command of wide-ranging subjects while offering, as David Wojahn suggests: “…a quiet self-possession and maturity of vision…an altogether impressive book of great tonal and formal range.” With a woman’s abiding concern for both the inner world and the one we share in common, Makofske ranges broadly, exploring both her varied interests and demonstrating mastery of subject matter and poetic form. Whether she is writing about love, death, family, childhood, nature, war…the poet never lapses into sentimentality, probing instead to the heart of her subject, each poem sharply drawn, reliant on striking metaphor. Throughout each of Traction’s five sections, we are steadily drawn toward another woman’s perceptions that perhaps some of us might not have considered.
Makofske opens with a meditation on “assault’s long history” from earliest times through the harrowing events of the last and present centuries:
believe the piles of bones will rest, the mountains
of shoes will forget their feet, that no matter how dark
the clouds of smoke from the crematoriums, the dust
will settle, and we will have learned a lesson too stark
to forget. (“Reading History beside a River”)
No details escape the poet’s eye. Consider the yellow tulip dropped on the pavement by a fleeing citizen in some contemporary “Unnamed Country”:
…It still breathes
as in a meadow, waiting for the bees.
Eventually “After the Cold War,”
You wake one morning before the alarm, and some burden
has lifted, like a tumor you carried painlessly for years…
Next, the poet segues into dynamics of family relationships where the title poem, “Traction,” figures in its literal and metaphoric implications revealing the daughter’s ambivalence for her mother whom she both envies and scolds, a reprise of the familiar mother/daughter collision. The accompanying scenes from childhood include “A Personal History of the Early Fifties,” a rollicking sestina of life during the “Red Scare” with activist parents and a daughter who felt
…like a fifth wheel as they jabbed
their way through history, Iron Age to nuclear arms. . .
and the free verse “White Gloves” in which the mother cautions a pox-smitten daughter to resist the body’s temptations to relieve the itch of her “nettlesome body.”
The “nettlesome body” inspires “The Facts,” drawn from Makofske’s years as a Sexuality Educator for teenage girls for whom she addresses“Why do you do sex? What is it for?” illuminating “the plug and socket of sex, / the piston of generation…” that has them befuddled, embarrassed.
Children, we want to say, you are not lost…
We would never be spirits except as bodies.
Body and Spirit are considered in “The Uniform of Flesh,” a masterful collection encompassing illness, death, euthanasia and love. “The Wound Dresser,” a free-verse 9-part poem justly awarded The Cumberland Poetry Review’s Robert Penn Warren Prize, is spoken in the voice and cadences of Walt Whitman, the dead poet recalled from the grave to Mannahatta to tend AIDS afflicted men caught up in “…another rift in the Union of soul and body.”
“The Compass of Love” is a stark and tender tale of a husband who learns to tame fear of his wife’s and his own impending death. Makofske’s brilliant use of metaphor illuminates darkness:
His face weathered,
his skin a tent struck by the winds
“An Inward Bruise,” recipient of Spoon River Poetry Review’s Editors’ Prize, showcases Makofske’s poetic study of whales and dolphins. A devoted student of cetaceans, the poet asks,
When we mimic their voices,
what are we saying?
She brings us close up to these creatures as a pregnant woman steps into the shallows:
The clicks of the dolphins grow rapid
as gossip. They bring their infants
into the shallows, the danger zone.
“Not Love Exactly,” the concluding section, draws upon nature, childhood, mortality, imagination… subjects and themes threaded throughout the entire collection. The title poem, with its epigraph by Stephen Dunn, …You can’t say to your child / Evolution loves you…, explores the astonishment at how things worked out. There’s always the possibility things might have gone otherwise. Just “one missed turn” and
…It could all have come
to something quite different, or to nothing,
anything but lilac blossoms woozy
with fragrance, your own irrelevant wonder.
“Like Peter Rabbit, Whom He Much Admires,” is a delicious love song to the poet’s grandson whose “love of hiding” has given grandma some uneasy moments. Calm and at home inside the roots, the child:
presses ear to earth,
sap dripping on his hair to leave
a kiss so firm we cannot wash it out.
“Three Elegies for the White Mare” explores the genesis of creative imagination:
How long inside its shell
the poem stirs and changes,
then taps its way out.
Apparently a serious gardener, Makofske has dug furrows, planted seed beds, awaited germination and harvest, and so it is with her poetry…quiet cultivation of the imagination where both patience and wisdom win out. “Poem Sprouted on White Ground” is only one of many poems that attest to Makofske’s abiding passion:
When I plant my hands in earth
I want my mind there, too
inarticulate as a slug,
reading only the scrawl…
puts me face to face with blossoms
Dusted with pollen, the mind
backs out of the flower.
Passionate and morally serious, Makofske follows in the tradition of women writers like Mary Oliver, Carolyn Forche, Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker among others. How rich we are for all these splendid poems to read again and again in Mary Makofske’s company.
Joan Siegel is the author of Hyacinth for the Soul (Deerbrook Editions, 2009) and Light at Point Reyes (Shabda Press, forthcoming December 2012.) A recipient of the New Letters Poetry Prize and the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award, she is also co-author of Peach Girl: Poems for a Chinese Daughter (Grayson Books, 2002).