V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Janet Holmes's Second Book of Poetry




In poetry, of course, the "impulse to get it all down" is only a beginning,
and Janet Holmes has both the skill and the artistry necessary to set forth
her materials in an effective and powerful book.

If "The Time Savers," the second part of Janet Homes's volume of poetry called The Green Tuxedo, stands something like a full-length portrait of a man, a father, presented as a tribute, an homage, by a daughter who has sought out the "truth" in bits and pieces; then, the first part ("The Green Tuxedo") provides a background, a context for the portrait.
    In that first part, a dozen and a half poems, some of them sequences of loosely connected, intercut shorter pieces, establish both a terrain and a climate (of the upper Midwest, of Minnesota) ÷ often wintry and fragmentary, like spears of ice kicked up by passing cars.  It is a poetry of glimpses, of missing pieces.
    Some of the suites of poems in the first part gather themselves around colors: "Yellow Period," "The Blue World," and (in a smaller way) "The Green Tuxedo."  But almost always there are the road, the car, the Minnesota landscape.  In "Drive Shaft," the young woman is flat on her back on a gravel road, removing the drive shaft from her Jeep, to the amazement of a passing Samaritan who shakes his head at her refusal of a man's help.  In "Landscape Duel," the Minnesota northwoods do battle with the speaker's memories of and sense of loyalty to a desert landscape from another time in her life.
    The land and its people ÷ the passing stranger, the wife of a mortician's son, the old bachelor whose house a young couple buys "knowing the work it promises is mostly simple labor" ("The Bachelor's House") ÷ are seen with the eye of someone in, but not quite of, the place:

        she wonders whether he, the man who lived here had a greater
        or less tolerance for loneliness
                                                        than the bachelor who labelled
        everything in sight in his crooked script, whose closets (opened wide by the proud
        stockpiled soap and tissues against a year of crisis,
        whose cupboards held seven boxes of cereal
        designated with the days of the week·

She wonders whether the obsession with order, like that of a college friend who piled his clean clothes on top of a dresser and hid his dirty laundry away in the drawers, isn't "a sign, like early symptoms of inherited disease / beginning to show themselves in small, unalarming ways."  ("The Bachelor's House")
    She talks "cold business" in a café with "men who fix cars and admire our gear" ÷ their snowshoes ÷ and then spin stories about "the backcountry where moose like to go."  When one of the men checks the time, he exclaims that it's five o'clock "and still light!" ("Post-Solstice")
    It's hard for me not to remember that these men, these people of the dark Minnesota winter, are descendants of folks much like those in Michael Lesy's book Wisconsin Death Trip, photographed between 1890 and 1910 by Charles Van Schaick and written about in the articles of small-town Wisconsin newspaper editors Frank and George Cooper.  Holmes's Minnesotans don't sit for formal portraits, as did Van Schaick's Wisconsin folks ÷ many of whom succumbed to cabin fever, dementia, and violent death ÷ but are glimpsed out of the corner of the eye of a young woman from somewhere else ÷ or inferred from the houses in which they used to live.
    In the second part ("The Time Savers"), the father, who died in Florida in 1985, is a journalist brought to life by a daughter who rummages through his annual Laird & Lee diaries and time savers, a newspaper obituary, a box of old slides.  We learn from the obituary that he, as a journalist, was instrumental in Dr. Sam Sheppard's receiving a new trial in the early sixties.  In "Wild Women I Have Known," Part One is a simple list from a 1921 diary of some seventy-six names, provoking in Part Two brief musings on the Roaring Twenties, the "S.O.B." prefacing a handful of names at the top of the list, two skipped numbers (49 and 71), her mother's pointing out the names of her father's first and second wives.
    She, the young woman, pores over the remnants of her father's younger self, using the journalist's who, what, where, when, why, and how as some of her section titles:


        a member of the Tribune editorial staff for 25 years and a prominent author·


        He's a month short of nineteen, when he'll write
        "I am as old as I look"÷what with
        repeated trips from Madison to Milwaukee,
        freelancing to the dailies, his regular job,
        a full set of classes, and flivvering back to Milton·


        he stands in the green Wisconsin summer, humidity packed around him
        like so much sodden wool; the incessant nattering insects·


    1920 diary entries teach her "what was grim to him at eighteen, what tragedy was."  The first in a long line of "lurid front-page stories ÷ Bugs Moran, mad Ed Gein, Sam Sheppard·"  In the young diarist, she sees, for the first time, the father she remembers only as an old man.


        I'm after his dreaming years,

        his twenties: when he translated
        all his grave obsessions into love, his pleasures into schemes

        to make him rich, and work
        to make him famous.


        With his Parker 51 fountain pen made in Janesville·
        With her hidden violin tucked in its green scarf·
        With the black Quink bottle where the pen was filled·
        With music books; with the green paisley scarf
                    thrown backwards over her shoulder, a cushion
                    for the instrument.
        And with all his notes, round script in blunt pencil,
                    and the implulse to get it all down·


    In poetry, of course, the "impulse to get it all down" is only a beginning, and Janet Holmes has both the skill and the artistry necessary to set forth her materials in an effective and powerful book.  Like Dr. Williams, she sees clearly, sympathetically and without sentimentality, and, while her lines move along in a Williams-esque "not-quite-prose way," her eye for detail and her ear for sounds and rhythms are unfailing.  The images, the words, the sounds:

        Now in the night they wish to know who
        I love best, like siblings beleaguering
        their passionate mother: in the sleepless dark
        the stars are suddenly bright, a rescue party
        coming upon me from afar, their torches
        lit and flickering across the miles.

                                ["Landscape Duel"]

    Good words for all of us awaiting rescue.

Holmes, Janet. The Green Tuxedo.  Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.  ISBN: 0-268-01036-6  $12.00

© by Halvard Johnson


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