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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Marianne Poloskey's First Book of Poetry





Poloskey's effective imagery, delivered in a deceptively plain-spoken language
through carefully crafted lines, takes the reader into a world at once intimate and universal·

Marianne Poloskey's Climbing the Shadows is a collection of mostly autobiographical poems, all of which have been previously published in literary magazines such as War, Literature and the Arts, Christian Science Monitor, North River Review, and others.  The book, which chronicles different stages in the life of the poet ÷ from her war experience as a child in Germany, to her departure and separation from loved ones, to her coming of age ÷ has a positive and optimistic tone. Almost every poem, either by its ending or by its structure, comes through in a poised voice celebrating the sanctity and the joy of life even in the face of overwhelming odds, as if the poet takes the text she is given by destiny and says in turn,

        Playfully I followed
        the thin letters with
        my pen to make them more

    Memories of family and places, love lost and love fulfilled, memories of war and peace, others' faces and words, are filtered through a sensitive eye, creating a poetic memoir where genuine emotion is rendered in evocative images and powerful portraits. The tone of her poems is often elegiac, echoing a peaceful and contemplative state of mind. Her language is image-rich and thought-stimulating, while the underlining intention of most poems seems to be "making time visible," as she says in "The Egg Timer":

        And when the sand stopped
        running, we were invariably
        amazed at having allowed
        five whole minutes of ourselves
        to drift away while we
        did nothing but stare
        after them.

    Marianne Poloskey adheres to a school of poetry concerned with "the passionate pursuit of the real," as Czeslaw Milosz defines it. She presents a poetry that is better served by clarity of language in an effort to give proof, in Richard Hugo's words, "that writing is a slow, cumulative way of accepting your life as valid."
    Poloskey gives form to her reality through a language that turns regular speech into metaphoric images, and although she does not enter into any prescribed metrical pattern or rhythm, preferring an open and free form, there is in her poetry a sustained effort at utilizing some of the less obtrusive poetic devices.  Here and there an anapestic, ionic, or iambic structure seems to emerge from the lines, but any attempt at scansion is rapidly abandoned in favor of a particular word, or a line break the poet uses in order to express the meaning she is seeking.
    The poems in Climbing the Shadows make it clear to the reader that in this poetâs esthetic choices form is secondary to content and clarity of expression.  That is not to say that Marianne Poloskeyâs poems do not have their own intrinsic order.  Her poems rely mostly on alliteration, assonance, metonymy, anaphora, and enjambment to obtain a blues-like inner movement, a meditative tempo taking its time to establish its own environment and open its notes, thus pulling the reader into a universe of deceptively simple sounds at work to create unique songs.  The directness and elegant simplicity of these songs remind sometimes of Mary Oliverâs poems, as both these poets skillfully use words to enter the metaphoric realm without blurring the crisp clarity of the poem.
    Marianne Poloskey seems to follow the advice Gary Snyder once gave to an audience of poets at the Dodge Poetry Festival -- to start the poems as vision, picture, movement, not as an idea, but as a complex of thought.  Her poems, in a true postmodern fashion, introduce the reader to the way the poet experiences life through language.  But, at the same time, Poloskey distances herself from the habit of allusions and reinterpretations of past subjects, specific to postmodern American poetry with its traditions of intertextuality and its solipsistic pleasures of word-play, and her poetry leans more towards romantic themes and imagistic language.  Marianne Poloskey avoids burdening her verses with a glossary of literary and cultural meanings, or catchy word riddles, allowing them to become their own point of reference in the here and now of their landscape, in the distinctive voice of the persona of the poem.

        Donât, as the bombs rain down,
        tell the shelter any secrets
        just to hear your own voice.

        But if the building falls
        and you survive,
        shout loudly through the stones
        that youâre alive.
                    ["Shout Loudly Through the Stones"]

And indeed, the poems shout loudly in the face of a would-be child executioner, tell of parents not able to "halt the bombs" and of maternal rape, confessing overwhelming dreams and fears.

        I imagined
        yanking you up by an arm
        like a doll,
        pictured us slipping out
        of our bodies
        as if they were clothes.
        No longer targets,
        we would float
        through the window
        into the wide-open
        summer night÷
        bruised clouds,
        you and I,
        rising purple in the sky.

    Although most of Poloskey's poems assume a confessional "I," relating a personal experience, her poetry is not moored in the inner-searches and self-reflection of confessional tradition, but rather its intention is the expression of a human condition, although singular and individual, in search for its own universality and for the common ground of human experience of history and time.
    Time, and the way the poet experiences the passage of it, becomes an emblematic theme, as many of the poems in this collection juxtapose present and past, sometimes insisting on the atemporality of time and sometimes in its solid-like structure.

        And when I see a picture
        of a child
        whose slanted eyes
        fear has rounded
        I find myself once more
        from a blacked-out window
        into a bright-red street.

        And then I wonder:
        how many of this warâs  children
        will be
        as fortunate as I÷
        years hence
        able to remember?
                    ["Years Hence"]

    In most cases, particular care is given to line breaks, but there are instances when the poet seems to be so preoccupied with emphasizing one word or another, in an effort to expand the language of the poem in all its available layers of meaning, that her line endings appear forced, as in the lines from "Years Hence" ("Every time I read of / war") where one wonders why "of" and "war" are so unnaturally separated in the poem.
    There are instances when an effort at clarity drives some of the poems into a "soft ending," as if while straining to deliver a precise conclusion the poem turns in the end into a fable needing to articulate its own moral.  Such is the case in "Haven," "Never Again," "Two Ships Passing on the High Sea," and "Shout Loudly Through the Stones," as well as other poems in this collection which end up spoon-feeding the reader, nailing shut the meaning of the poem, where a more open ending would benefit both the reader and the poem.  I guess there is always a choice to be made, and although I might disagree with her choices at times, I salute the effort at craft.  In addition, knowing a lot more of her work than what is presented in this collection, work that has recently appeared in many magazines and anthologies, I can say that the minor shortcomings found in some of the poems from Climbing the Shadows are addressed and dealt with in interesting ways in her more recent poems.
    But be it war or peace, love or departure, the poetâs introspection reveals a meaning, a thought, a sentiment that once on the page becomes familiar even as it surprises.  Consider these lines from "Graveyard at Saarbruecken," a poem which, without much preparation, puts the reader in the surrounding hills of a German town where a cemetery shelters the remains of World War II soldiers, German and Russian, "side by side in earthâs impartial peace":

        ·five lines of abridged lives
        in an unrhymed poem.
        As if elevating them
        might vindicate the past,
        the town surrendered
        this plot of hill
        with its long view of freedom
        where now a grand house might gloat.
        Reading the names out loud,
        we consider our own lives÷
        what we would have missed,
        leaving at their age.

    Poloskey's effective imagery, delivered in a deceptively plain-spoken language through carefully crafted lines, takes the reader into a world at once intimate and universal, as in the poem "Lee":

        It always seemed to be summer÷at least
        summer is what I remember you in,
        walking back and forth past these windows
        pushing a wheelbarrow,
        keys rattling on your hip, always
        weeding or planting or pruning.

    When Marianne Poloskey, winner of the New Jersey William Carlos Williams Poetry Contest for two consecutive years and member of Bergen Poets, one of the oldest poetry organizations in New Jersey, entered the public poetry scene, her richly imagistic poetry immediately caught the attention of Aaron Elson, publisher of Chi Chi Press and one of the most active promoters and organizers of artistic and literary public events in New Jersey.   Elson offered Poloskey a publishing contract for her book.  Reading Climbing the Shadows, it becomes clear that this book is only a first step for a poet whose emotional honesty and straightforward poetic language appeals to a growing and diverse audience.  I have no doubt that we will see many more poems and books bearing the unique poetic signature of Marianne Poloskey.

Poloskey, Marianne. Climbing the Shadows.  Maywood, New Jersey: Chi Chi Press, 2000.  ISBN: 0-964-06116-3  $10.00

© by Ana Doina


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