Christine Perrin, Bright Mirror (University of St. Katherine Press)
Each Hour is Built Slowly: A Review of Christine Perrin’s Bright Mirror
Readers who enjoy thoughtful, accessible poetry rooted in the sacred will find much to delight them in Christine Perrin’s collection Bright Mirror, recently released by St. Katherine’s Press. Perrin’s poems are studious and restrained, and deeply grounded in Western tradition, but also winsomely anecdotal in tone. “I’m pulling onion grass from the lawn / as the sun sets,” one piece begins; another, “I want you to know that I am carrying an empty bag / with the smell of the market still in the plastic.” Bright Mirror explores many aspects of the poet’s life and memory—motherhood, reading, teaching, traveling, gardening—with elegance and an exceptional degree of insight, often drawing connections both to communal faith and personal vocation. For those who understand poetry’s aims, as Jhumpa Lahiri has said of Edward Hirsch, “to be intimate but restrained, to be tender without being sentimental, to witness life without flinching, and above all, to isolate and preserve those details of our existence so often overlooked, so easily forgotten, so essential to our souls,” Perrin’s work will prove well worth several hours of leisurely perusal.
“Reading Telemachus,” a poem which occurs relatively early in the collection, showcases the gentle way in which this poet’s reading of Western canonical texts informs her understanding of lived experience:
Each autumn the brine and measure of this tale
are on my tongue; everyone tells me
it’s about fathers and sons, impossible returns,
and the immortality of home.
But in your sixteenth year, when you take my hand
across the table, where we are dining late,
I read your unswerving face, your shoulders’ tilt.
I discover it’s about leaving after all.
The subtleties of the phrase “brine and measure” are testament to Perrin’s skill: with sensory efficiency the words capture the seaside setting of The Odyssey and the linguistic scape of its hexameter measures, but they also capture something of the poet’s own project to measure and weigh experience, and to accept the “brine” alongside the sweet. (I think of New Testament metaphor of “salt” as that which renders a thing more fully itself.) This is, in many ways, a poem about an ancient text so rich it cannot exhaust the reader’s capacity to discover new significance in it. But it is also about human relationship and love as the poet, presumably, contemplates the departure of a teenager from her home. The emotional distance of the textual paraphrase that begins the poem renders the turn to the personal in the final lines—and the rise of the speaker’s maternal instincts—poignant but far from cloying in its quiet surprise.
This poem indirectly exhibits another admirable trait as well: that of understanding poetry as a communal experience. Recall the opening I mentioned earlier, “I want you to know I am carrying an empty bag,” in light of the lines “everyone tells me / it’s about fathers and sons.” This is a poet who tends to present herself as one of a community of readers (and, not incidentally, as a member of a family). She is both lecturer and audience, recipient and giver. She wants you to know this because she believes she has undertaken a way of life (mother, teacher, poet, neighbor) which has significance, and in which we readers may significantly share. This assumption that the reader has a place in the poem, and that individual experience has implications for the broader community, is something that keeps the pieces humble, in the best possible sense. For one thing, it prevents the poet from giving primacy to cleverness or linguistic showmanship. Complex reflections are expressed in straightforward imagery and plain (albeit rhythmically heightened) language, and rely on the strength of their observations rather than the drama of verbal tricks.
This is not to say that the poems aren’t carefully wrought. Perrin’s diction certainly contains nuance, and rhythms like these, from the poem “Garden,” suggest caution and care:
Daylight comes and each hour is built
slowly, each attachment is the structure
of the clematis, which this morning
I am trying to separate, unwind the vine tendril
so the buds will ascend.
I say tendril but mean hook or lock.
Who knew what we would ask of each other
in the grip of the thing? It gathers
around the base of the lamppost, heaped,
and all the opening shut down.
Like the winding clematis on an uncompromising post, these poems, one understands, have not only been “built slowly,” but have grown slowly, too, and ought to be read with this effort in mind. The poems are grave, in the old sense of the word, and invite the gravity of reflection. And yet they do not want to oppress with sorrow or dazzle with wit or otherwise leave you feeling left out. They want you—the best you, the one that weighs and appreciates beauty and significance—to let down your guard, open your imaginative mind, and come in.
Ideas are, however, expressed with reserve, and this reserve can prove to be both strength and weakness. If the poems eschew poetic showmanship, they also, at times, give linguistic music second place to the pursuit of winding thought and quiet revelation. At times the reticent cadences grew tedious, and I wished for an occasional foray into a more headlong rhythm or a more exuberant accretion of images.
“Mare Nostrum, Jerusalem,” for example—one of many poems about Jerusalem, a city to which this poet has a special attachment—is clever and heartfelt, and reminiscent of both metaphysical and classical poets in its reliance on juxtaposition and elision, but also, in spite of its perfectly competent off-rhymes, may risk sounding stiff to some contemporary ears:
The city that holds me is forty miles from the sea;
here, the Atlantic is two hundred from me.
On a good day I can reach the shore by breakfast.
The lordly Romans called their body, in the first
century, mare nostrum, meaning small world, our sea.
Antioch, Alexandra, Carthage—an empire of lost cities
all near it. God, with his teeming waters, tides, fathom,
silence, salt, and our thirst, we call an ocean.
It is, of course, a poet’s delight to bring together unlike things, to close distances and bridge syntactic gaps, and Perrin is making delightful use of this capacity. Watch, for example, the way the subject nouns shift dramatically in scope: from “the city” in the first sentence, to “I” in the second, “the lordly Romans” in the third, and “God” in the fourth. Is this a poem about the individual or the collective, the immediate or the historic, the human or divine? All of the above. Things which we tend to think of as having great spatial or temporal distances are suddenly brought together in couplets, and tied with rhymes, albeit slant ones. The sea (both the literal Atlantic Ocean and metaphoric “mystery” of memory and spirituality) is overcome. Yet the mystery also persists, in the white space, pushing the poet apart from her object even as she works to build thought-bridges. I admire the paradox behind this overarching principle of the poem’s construction, even as I find some of the individual decisions awkward (the line break on “first / century,” the humdrum “sea”/“cities” rhyme, the teacherly voice explaining the Latin phrase).
At her best, though, Perrin is capable of extraordinary tenderness and grace. I think of “My Parents Speaking French,” a brief, delightful tribute to the stability and love the poet experienced as child and simultaneously a testimonial of her awakening to language. Or “Pascha Vigil,” about the interior suffering of a son. Certainly pain and an acute awareness of human mortality lies in the recesses in these pieces, as it does in all successful poetry. But Bright Mirror is also a rare expression of some very simple and good things: a happy childhood, a fruitful home, an undergirding and self-sundering faith, and a difficult vocation. “Yes,” the poet says “to the despairing / self, the doubter, this is artifice,” and, “here the smells are fading, and I am afraid.” But also, “I’m remembering / you, my friend” and, “this ripe weight feels good in my hand.” And,
I light a candle and stick it in the sand
before the image of the birthgiver
the world inside her, who said yes.
I touch its small fire to my unclean lips.
Kjerstin Anne Kauffman holds an MFA from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where she taught literature and creative writing. Her poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals, including American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, and 32 Poems.