V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Judith Montgomery's First Book of Poetry



Montgomery’s imagery reaches a deeper level when
we consider the three strands that unite this book: 
the color red (including blood), which binds
us to earth; flight, which loosens these bonds;
and flame, which encompasses both.  These patterns
are deliberate, hanks of yarn which the writer
threads on her loom for some very deft weaving. 

The poems in Red Jess, Judith Montgomery’s impressive debut book, want to wear wings and soar, want to “slip. . . the surly bonds of earth,” (“High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee) but are instead, held like trained falcons by jesses, those “countless silken ties of love and thought” (Robert Frost).  This tension, this struggle between flight and containment, is what makes these poems leap off the page “on the grace of rinsing wings” (“Anger, Iron, Origami”).  They are “blood-lit and underwrit by bone” (“Augury), and yet joy is present as well, the kind that Wendell Berry writes about when he says, “Be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts.”  Montgomery achieves this through her careful, precise language, musical diction, and mixture of contained and open forms.  These are poems that remind us what it is like to be human, at this time, on this planet.
    “Aperture,” the prologue poem, acts as an invocation, and also includes all of the book’s major themes: flight (the falcon), red (the jesses and the photograph’s negative, “Suspended in the red”), and fire (“sparks lightning branch // to branch” and the tip of a glowing cigarette).  These images thread again and again throughout the book.  Also, the very word “aperture,” the camera term for an adjustable hole that controls or limits the amount of light that can enter, works symbolically for the book as a whole.
    In her construction, Montgomery has divided the book into three sections.  Part I,  “Composition with Machete,” focuses its lens on the larger world of history and its wars:  World War I, Bosnia, Jakarta, an unnamed war of Virgil, ending with the deathbed scene in “The White Boat.”  Section II, “Scarlet Box,” focuses inward on personal history:  a bad marriage, infertility, separation, divorce, loneliness, healing.  The main image here is the heart:  “Here is my heart, folded as a box” (“Gretel’s Spell”).  “Blaze, with Apples,” Section III, opens out to the larger world again, but here it is the world of nature, poems of hiking, fishing, and sexual love, along with poems about aging and the body, the wick of the candle guttering out.  It is as if she is playing with a spyglass, shifting the focus of “the rich lens of attention” (Jane Kenyon) out, then in, then out again. 
    Montgomery also shifts our focus by using a variety of formal and informal elements.  In closed forms, there is a pantoum, “Blaze, With Apples”(cleverly broken up into couplets), and a villanelle, "The Metaphysics of Insomnia."  In open forms, most of the poems are in triplets (twelve) and couplets (sixteen), although many of these have interesting variations:  single lines thrown in that alter the rhythm, stepped lines, dropped couplets (where the second line is indented), triplets with the second line indented, triplets with lines two and three indented, couplets with an in and out pattern (lines two and three are indented, line four is back out to the margin), and broken couplets, where the white space in the middle of the line is used as a rhythmic device. This is done to particularly good effect in “Shiver-Man,” where the white spaces echo the staccato of gunfire or the drumbeats of the soldiers’ hearts.  Because of these variations, the reader’s expectations are always challenged.  In “Cardioversion,” the irregular stanzas and indents mimic the irregular heartbeat that is the subject of the poem, an excellent blend of sound and sense. Even fixed forms are played with; in the aforementioned villanelle, the first repeat, “The moon pours her white waterfall of sleep,” becomes “the bright moon pouring waterfalls of sleep,” “myself on purling waterfalls of sleep,” and then, in the penultimate line, returns to the original; while the second repeat, “I have no bucket, and the well is deep,” stays the same in the first repetition, then becomes “but I have no bucket for a well so deep,” and finally, the powerful “I am the bucket, and the well runs deep.”  It’s a great deal of fun for the reader to find a poet willing to be contained by form and to expand it.
    But it is in terms of language — imagery, sound devices, unusual syntax — that these poems really shine. Consider the assonance in “Shiver-Man”:  lung, hung, shudders, stump, drums numb, muddy Somme, bumbles, ruts, how they sound like the distant mortar fire referred to in line one.  Or the consonance in the last part of the poem:  dark, flick, walk, clinic, jerk; short bursts of ack-ack from the battlefield.  Sometimes these sounds are more subtle, such as the off-rhyme in “At the Metolius River, We Walk in Falling Snow”:  “You turn, we turn to each other through the dark, / while snow shadows land, water, rock.” Or at the end of “Rose/Wood,” where the third to the last line, “fire- / crisped leaf, thorn curved deep, red rose hip” slant rhymes internally with the last line, “She will repair what she can reach,” helping it click satisfyingly shut like Yeats’s well-made box.
    Many of the images are original and stunning.  In “Gallop,” a stethoscope presses “its hard, cold coin / into her chest.” In “Housekeeper,” the monitors in the hospice are “peeping like Easter chicks.” A woman’s womb is a “plum reticule” (“Sonata for Tide and Light”).  The moon, in “The Metaphysics of Insomnia” pours her light “down a scarp of stars to flood the earth.” The speaker in “Wake-Robin” is “heart-shot // by April’s pulled pin.”  There’s a certain startle here, the thrill of the unexpected, and it adds texture and complexity to the narrative lines.
    Throughout the book, Montgomery uses gorgeously sensual language, and she uses it to best possible effect in "Rose/Wood":

        each coupling drowned in rose-tides—
        Sweet Surrender* lapping at the sill,
        he trails blossoms underneath
        her chin, breastbloom, belly, knee

        and she reflects like buttercups
        the gleam of skinshine where he strokes—
                     (*“Sweet Surrender” is a type of rose)

And again in “Fragrance,” where she describes the smell after sex (certainly an unusual topic for a poem):

                                             . . . and I

        cannot help myself, I bend to breathe
        in the lovely steamy scent that blooms
        like the smell of baking bread—as though I

        could take you in again—and again, ever
        after, in one hundred fragrant mortal ways.

These sensory images remind us that we live in animal bodies, that we are as much a part of this earth as leaf mulch and loam.
    Montgomery’s imagery reaches a deeper level when we consider the three strands that unite this book:  the color red (including blood), which binds us to earth; flight, which loosens these bonds; and flame, which encompasses both.  These patterns are deliberate, hanks of yarn which the writer threads on her loom for some very deft weaving.  There’s the red stallion in “Gallop,” the heart and the  robin’s “redder breast” in “Wake-Robin,” the “red drop” that “shudders” in “Shiver-Man,” the scarlet cape and the “bloodweight // of their hearts” in “Composition with Machete,” the lips that are “bloodstopped” in “The White Boat,” the heart in “Gretel’s Spell” (“The walls — lacquered dragon-red,” “the cunning scarlet box”) the red pen in “A Cultural History of Fences,” and then those red jesses again:

        Fine scarlet threads stake her soles
        to ground, lace her instep, ankle, heel.  Her
        signature.  Ligature.  She smiles for the camera,
        tests the jesses braided from her veins.  They hold.

    There are also blazing apples (“Absence”) and the heart in “Cardioversion”:  “the blood  —pause / that would bud its scarlet fist / and knot a black bouquet in your brain.” Clearly, Montgomery has dipped her pen into this red ink for a purpose, to make us aware of the streams and rivers  coursing through the body. Sylvia Plath wrote, “The blood jet is poetry,” and here it is, running throughout this book.
    The second component to this braided imagery is flight.  In “Gallop,” Montogomery’s speaker questions her heart:  “Will he run into the sky / without her?,” reminiscent of Rilke’s “I would like to step out of my heart / and go walking beneath the enormous sky.”  In “Swift,” “the unfledged boy” is “at tip-point of flight.”  “Wake-Robin” has as its central figures a fallen hawk and a robin, while “Hawk, Rising” give us images of Kitty Hawk, Wilbur and Orville’s historic flight, Daedalus, the Montgolfiers (hot-air ballooning pioneers), Otto Lilienthal (who broke his spine when his glider plunged to the ground), warplanes,  and also nature with “the rise and glide of osprey, hawk.”  In “Composition with Machete,” the young man at left “is catapult in flight.”  In “Anger, Iron, Origami,” the heart, which has been ironed into a box, is freed,  and “[a] thousand wings flutter // from the hollows of her bones.”  Throughout the book, we are reminded of the trained hawk, who is free to fly but returns to its owner, (the jesses only restrain it on the arm), those silken ties of love and thought again, all the things that bind us, each to each, our family, friends, and home.
    The third strand, the uniting element, is flame.  Fire is red, like blood, rooted to earth, but it flickers up to the sky, sparks taking flight.  In “Aperture,” Montgomery admonishes:  “[S]trike a smoke, wait // out the burn.”  In “Hawk, Rising, “ she asks, “Does one arc spark you to consider?”  In “Composition with Machete,” readers are asked to admire “the impeccable diagonal // blazing through the center of the shot,” while in “Gretel’s Spell” there are “maps / scribed in lemon juice that speaks over flame.”  “Rose/Wood” contains “thirty fire-coin moons” and “scarves [that] slide to the edge of scorch,” a lampbulb that “shakes and smokes.”
    In “Drought,”
        All week the heat set,
        gluing words to walls.  Incinerating sills.

        At midnight his cigarette
        burned its heart behind the kitchen screen.

        Her face cracked in silver ash,
        a flickering in attic panes.

        Dog moon scorched the tender sky.

    These poems are hot; these poems are on fire.  In “Anger, Iron, Origami,” the speaker even “sets the iron // to her chest.  A crisp silence.  Smoke.  //  Her heart sizzles."  In “Absence,” they “could part at the fork, / walk away from the flame / that singes our fingers when we touch,”  but there is the “smoking incense of paths / fingers take to discover / the presence of flesh — the thrum, the clamor // of the succulent, unreasonable heat.”  Indeed, the very last image of the book is one of small flames, as the speakers launch floating candles on a lake:

               Dipping in mirror-ink,
                   the boats stroke on a silk

        that shivers moon and mountain
              the name of every light
                   that flickers, and is gone.

    And so, here we have them, these poems grounded in the stuff of ordinary life, blood and earth, that want to fly, lift right off the page.  They create their own fire, heat and light.  These are poems we can return to with greater pleasure on each re-reading, poems that brighten our way, small candles “in this troubled world” (Shakespeare), stanzas of incandescence to bring light into the darkness of our human lives, and we, her readers, will gratefully await her next book.

Montgomery, Judith.  Red Jess. Cincinnati, Ohio:  WordTech Communications (Cherry Grove Collections), 2006. ISBN: 1-933456-17-5 $17.00

© by Barbara Crooker

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