V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Edwards’ work continually demonstrates a distinctive voice
revealing a process of thought, inviting her readers to witness
the process and sharing with the readers an individual view . . ..

ith her second collection of poetry, The Highwayman’s Wife, Lynnell Edwards continues to present work readers often find emphatic, even uniquely forceful, frequently requiring an alert and attentive listener who appreciates lyrical poetry posing a point of view that at times educates and almost always entertains. In addition to her two books of poetry, over the years Edwards regularly has written reviews for various literary journals. During one of her reviews that appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Georgia Review, Lynnell Edwards commented on a couple of collections of poetry criticism, including a volume by Helen Vendler. In her remarks, Edwards discussed and complimented how Vendler stresses the importance of voice in a poet’s work, citing the examples of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and William Butler Yeats. Edwards agrees with Vendler that an individual writer’s distinguishing voice, even when modulated to suit a persona as speaker, effectively reveals to readers the poet’s thinking process and personal perspective, and it welcomes each reader into the world of the poet or the poem’s persona.
    While reading Lynnell Edwards’ poetry — both The Highwayman’s Wife and her previous volume, The Farmer’s Daughter (Red Hen Press, 2003) — I have repeatedly been pleased to discover precisely the characteristic admired by Vendler to be evident in so many poems. Edwards’ work continually demonstrates a distinctive voice revealing a process of thought, inviting her readers to witness the process and sharing with the readers an individual view — sometimes representing the poet’s perception, other times shown through the eyes of a carefully chosen persona — on the subject matter under discussion or delivering an emotional response evoked within the lines of poetry.
    Indeed, The Highwayman’s Wife offers a generous collection of poems also demonstrating Edwards’ ability to adjust her voice when employing traditional form, such as the sonnet, or when straying away from rigid form toward the looser and more informal language contained within her free verse pieces. Importantly, the poet appears confident and in control no matter which tactic or type of poem she chooses as the way to convey engaging content that continually enlightens. As one might expect, the collection’s title poem may serve as an appropriate point of reference. “The Highwayman’s Wife” exists as a sonnet with an irregular rhyme scheme sitting within a section of eleven such sonnets. The form supplies a sense of boundaries beyond which the speaker must move through use of effective language that projects some compelling subject matter to its readers, inviting personal involvement or emotional interest.
    “The Highwayman’s Wife” skillfully blends descriptive passage with declarative statement (“Another moon past and again the persistent rain. / She wants a child.”) to create a persuasive and authoritative voice that depicts its situation with a definitive tone. While the wife remains home, distracted by sounds from her neighbor’s children — “the shouts of their game, the debris of their play / strewn across her sister’s lawn” — she endures a loneliness: her husband roams far, “always away,” and when he does return, he’s simply “whiskied and loose, / distracted, rambling about some deal.” The wife wants children of her own, small ones she could “stack at night in their little beds, / huddle them into her empty, empty arms, / and carry them into her marvelous, flower-filled yard.”
    In the opening poem (“Go”) of this sonnet sequence about a figure of folklore, readers view the highwayman preparing once more for another journey, hesitant as he awaits the best day for travel: “Three days ago he’d packed his case, shined / his boots and bit, but could not lift the latch.” The wife also can be seen reluctantly readying for his absence: “when the night arrives, / wood and larder stocked, wife resigned / and sighing by her lonesome stove . . ..” However, this central series of sonnets in the volume also shows Edwards’ poetry presenting a progressive sense of suspense and action, as she vividly displays the highwayman’s method of operation when he preys upon drunkards in the dark who “stagger from the lighted inn” or rural family men who “travel to town, helpless, burdened / with a foundered hog, a ragged goat.” The poet shares the following instructions in “How It’s Done”:

        A knifepoint and a level stare is all you need.
        Call it highway tax, or ferry toll: your due receipt.
        But for the wayward coach the expert guile
        is to ride along beside, affect a lover’s smile,
        offer help, safe passageway and then assassinate
        the driver.

    Elsewhere in the series, Edwards allows readers an opportunity to understand the uncertainties on this road: “Pistols, derringers, daggers, ropes, no matter / what you pack you’re not prepared. Disaster / happens quick from lack of feed as powder, / your beast no more certain than the weather” (“Weapons, the Road”). An ironic comment contained in “The Problem of Roommates” suggests that even the thief can be vulnerable and must be cautious about others: “while you rest, they steal, / smuggle small goods from your leather pack.” Speaking in second person, the highwayman lends a word to the wise as he reminds himself about occasions of distrust and deception, those twisted conditions in the life he has chosen to pursue:

        . . . Again, another night
        you meant to trust a fellow thief, and instead
        of honor, found absence and deception, cold regret,
        portent clouds, a rush of swallows, the story of your life.

    Earlier in the collection, readers had been introduced to the Highwayman when Edwards began the book with a prelude titled “Sonnet for the Highwayman.” In that first glimpse at the figure, he is depicted as the victim of another at a stop he considered a “safe house, the happy way / station on the lonely road.” The female speaker in this poem boasts: “I will rob you, lover. Cut your purse, / pilfer the gold coins stitched inside your shirt / when I reach for a kiss, ungirdle your bright sword / for my own device, whirl away into the Highland night.” The poet discloses the wild and wily woman who knows how to disarm and deceive even the thieves. She is one of the “youngest daughters / taught to lie, steal, before they can read.” Unlike the highwayman’s wife — who yearns for her man’s presence at home, her husband’s attention, and a few children of her own — this speaker reveals she does not desire “domestic lore”; instead, she has been trained to trick men with falsehood:

        . . . we are schooled in deception, forgery,
        as quick to sign our names as another.
        So abandon your treasure, your precious bounty,
        loose your horse to forage his animal soul,
        then on your knees, love. I have already stolen your cloak. 

    Despite the book’s title, the prelude, and the central location of this fine sequence of sonnets concerning a highwayman, the collection contains other complex connections between individual poems. In the book’s initial section, Edwards gives voice to a group of female mythological personalities in a five-part series titled “Suite for Wives.” The poet introduces readers to Medusa, Helen of Troy, Juno, Penelope, and Cassandra; however, Edwards surprises everyone by representing revisions of these women with confident, compelling, and contemporary language spoken in words that are sometimes profound and sometimes profane, but that always seems both a re-vision and a revitalization of the characters. Helen rants: “A thousand fucking ships / to recover my sweet ass? / What fools. And that’s not / the half of it. Listen, bitch: / I wanted out.” In another part of the suite, a character indicates she can receive “reports, hear the news, see / the e-mail distributions.” In “Trophy,” Cassandra is depicted as just that, the trophy wife: “I am your morning glory, daylily, / bikini-clad figurehead / wedged in the thrust / of a cigarette-sleek bow.”
    Lynnell Edwards includes some other series of linked poems, though spread throughout the collection, and these pieces that repeat subject matter (such as mixed drinks in the “Last Call” series) or share a common inspiration (as in a group of poems sporting epigraphs of excerpts from John Clare’s “The Shepherd’s Calendar”) act almost the same way a refrain might in a musical composition, seemingly returning readers to familiar territory, yet moving the fragmented narrative forward a bit further with each poem in its particular series.
    The twelve poems representing each of the months in the series inspired by Clare’s “The Shepherd’s Calendar” extend intermittently from the opening poem in part one of the book through to the volume’s closing poem. The dozen works wonderfully recapture the time of year referenced in each with a fresh and flowing language. In her January offering, “Cold As,” Edwards displays her descriptive ability:

        . . . opaque winter: snow drift balanced
        on a mounded shrub; black bird
        lofted in the low-vaulted sky; maze
        of bare branches, their map of bloom
        and struggle; axis of ice adhered
        to the limestone pass, its cold flow
        halted in portent chunks;
        still the day reveals nothing distinct
        from days past, no clue
        to the new year, how it will unfold
        loosed from this cold morning, cold
        as a sunken stone, cold as blue blazes.

    By the final entry in this sequence, December’s “Snow Day,” Edwards completes the series of monthly installments in her seasonal tour with some of her richest and most rewarding lines. Throughout the poem, the speaker repeats the words “lovely” (a term perhaps so often overused in everyday language that a poet normally would be wary to make it the crux of any work), as if to replenish its meaning and direct readers’ attention not only to its denotative definition of exquisitely beautiful, but also to the word’s root meanings of pleasure and desire:

        Lovely the snow as it floats from the sky, and lovely
        the bare trees pillowed in white; lovely the martin
        tracking across the playground walk. And lovely
        the shout of Snow! that startles the class from
        its drill and practice, the lovely disorder of books
        and pencils, and upturned desks. Snow. The whispered
        awe fogs the panes.

    Another spread out group of brief poems is mostly devoted to light-hearted looks at alcoholic mixed drinks and the associations commonly or not so commonly accompanying each, as in “Last Call: Mint Julep”:

        Make it despite impossible odds,
        trifecta of sugar, sweet mint,
        bourban tipped over ice,  
        sipped slow. The wait
        for the rush and burn, that horse
        no one suspected, that six furlong finish,
        your goddamn luck that will never run out.

    “Last Call: Old Fashioned” begins: “Make it in a gallon pickle jar, / round and smooth as a fat man’s gut. / Use Pop’s family recipe, passed / down from generation upon generation.” With these short lyrics Edwards exhibits her ease with expressions of wit and the greatly expanded range evident in this collection.
     In fact, the playfulness Edwards frequently brings to her poetry in this set of poems also extends to a number of other pieces in the book, such as “Spelling Test,” in which the speaker notes how language can provide entertainment to those of us fascinated by the characteristics contributed by specific words and letters. As a poet might perceive some lyrical connectivity of words, especially through rhyme or near-rhyme, the speaker suggests: “Not the logic of sense, but of sound / that brings together mountain and captain / in a list, or table with label.”
    Later in the piece, as the metaphor of spelling develops further, Edwards appears to acknowledge a few people (perhaps, particularly among poets) may hold a focused view, one that concentrates closely on those markings making up our vocabulary and often opening up new possibilities for us: “Like the combination to a lock, / the letters tumble onto the page.”  Nevertheless, by the final lines of the poem, the speaker seems to admit that for most folks language merely substitutes for the tangible objects or interesting activities its terms represent, those entertaining or extraordinarily eye-catching elements of the world that might distract someone from the words on a page, the preferred recreations one might pursue if not forced indoors by the imposed discipline of study or a simple rain delay: “Eyes ahead, / not drifting to the rain and the playground / and the puddles under the swings, slowly filling.”
    In “Driving Your Car” Edwards relates information to her readers in an even more informal yet informative manner. Like the speakers seen in previous poems, particularly a couple of the women figures in the “Suite for Wives,” the narrative voice is assertive, maybe aggressive, feeling free and taking control, determining direction from the beginning lines of the poem:

        I sit higher,
        hands wider
        gripping the bony wheel.
        I am at liberty,
        in charge, work
        the gear shift hard
        through acceleration . . .

    The speaker slowly rearranges everything inside the automobile to suit herself — “the seat’s recline, / the mirror’s view.” She is even conscious of the influence her presence will have in the future: “Leave my scent, / my skin, all evidence / of inhabitance / for your distraction / or affection.” In fact, some of the poems in the final section of the book involve the kind of influence those close to one another, particularly family members, may exert. In “Children Will Drive You” the parents choose “to give up drinking,” a deliberate decision made while wondering what their boys must think of the parents’ behavior.
    However, after a while participating in domestic occupations — playing board games, helping with homework, reading to one another — the children become uncomfortable with the parents’ newly discovered attention and their outward appearances of comfort or contentment: “a couple of docents / in our own home, modest, deferential, // startled by the bright kitchen, the wide stairs, / the cool plain of our bed.” Before long, the boys apply their own influence upon the parents by asking them if they wouldn’t want a drink: “Offering to cork / and spill the oblation into squat goblets.” Clearly, the adults’ conscious effort to behave with an over-attentive manner in a way they believe ought to be expected of parents proves to undermine their relationship with the children, who recognize the growing absence of those personalities — the parents’ authentic individual identities — that had existed for so long and served all so well in the past.
    The family poems usually show a sense of humor and involve incidents with which many can identify. In “Children, Sex” a speaker considers the life-long conflict between a couple’s attempts to find time for intimacy and the demands of children, their own and others. When they are young, the couple’s children wake early and knock on their parents’ bedroom door, questioning: “What’s going on in there? We scramble for robes / blankets, twist to the floor, stagger past / each other.” Even later in life, interruptions by children are as easily achieved as a mistimed phone call “late at night, / lights low, thick quilts a tent in our bed.” Finally, the speaker confides to readers: “Wrought things, offspring. Creaturely / hazards of our desire, our own fond wish / to be immortal. Who knows their pirate souls, / the demands in their confederate hearts.” The poem concludes with an emphatic and entertaining line: “No more children. Only us. Now. “ 
    Perhaps this is the moment where one should note Edwards manages to include a couple of intimate poems in this collection as well that demonstrate other opportunities and various aspects of a couple’s love. For instance, in “Aubade, November” the speaker reports waking to winter’s chill, “my body’s husk, / achingly and clenched against the cold.” Yet, by the close of the poem, she strikingly comments: “you wake too, / bent arm wrapping / my waist, splayed hand / finding a knob of hip, / a furrow of rib, / some aftermath to glean, // some not yet gathered bloom.” 
    On the other hand, in another typically humorous piece, “All I Know About Love” — apparently inspired by an episode of a so-called reality show, Fear Factor, in which women disrobe as they enter a box filled with reptiles to retrieve gold coins from the bottom — the poet discloses concern about the images of women in popular culture and warns her young boy about the true reality he may face:

        Son, a good woman will
        not take off her pants
        because you ask, will not
        auction her shame
        for shiny objects,
        will not bite
        the first sweet fruit
        you dangle at her lips.

    Consistent with the stronger images of women represented in her poems, and again expressing the influence one family member may have over another, the speaker tries to advise with her wise guidance, aware her recommendations about regarding love reflect her own knowledge and experiences: “all I know about love / does not contain / a reptile box, race / toward reward, points / awarded the last one standing.” Indeed, the closing stanza supplies a fine example of how Lynnell Edwards sometimes combines entertaining and humorous lines derived from seemingly frivolous subject matter or odd inspiration with delightful insight, and she capably constructs a movement from a supposedly lightweight topic toward more illuminating language that provides a surprising ray of light with which to see more clearly and more cleverly:

        And what difference
        you will someday divine
        between fear and delight,
        hold tight when the world
        cracks open, shows its black box
        of desire, its treasure
        of petal, earth, bright fang.

    As indicated, many of the poems in this new collection continue to explore personal perspectives in an informal and almost conversational tone, serving readers with language evidencing witty observations and intelligent insights on topics one sometimes might suspect to be ordinary until treated with Lynnell Edwards’ deft touch. However, with The Highwayman’s Wife Edwards expands her poetic scope and elevates her craft in the added complexity of traditional form or by presenting linked pieces in an extended sequence.
    Also, the inspirations provided by John Clare or the mythological women given active voices within this volume have allowed Edwards to attempt more difficult tasks and accomplish more ambitious goals. As the poet notes in a speculative poem (“In My New Expanded Life”) about what an ideal life might be like — where one would find “room for all things” — perhaps the poet’s ambition exhibited in this collection and her desire to develop further or extend her voice can best be expressed as she seeks to “find a way / to walk outside when it looks like rain, // name what it is I really want, consider / its impossible heft in my open palm, / stand up straight in the sparking storm.”
    The poem suggests such a life is impossible and hints achieving it is unrealistic; nevertheless, any effort exerted in search of an ultimately unattainable perfection in poetry occasionally results in an admirable advancement, a forward movement toward more understanding or greater expression of emotion and wisdom. In The Highwayman’s Wife Lynnell Edwards’ further advancement of craft and the admirable poetic achievements enclosed between the book’s covers can easily be seen by readers rewarded by this poet’s willingness to be adventurous and accurate in the strong voices she or her personae employ as they stand straight and proclaim themselves in vivid language as unique individuals worthy of our attention.

The Highwayman’s Wife, Lynnell Edwards.  Red Hen Press, 2007. ISBN: 139781597090759  $17.95


© by Edward Byrne


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