Gail Thomas: Review by Rebecca Hart Olander


Waving Back cover

Waving Back by Gail Thomas (Turning Point)


     Gail Thomas’s Waving Back, her third full-length collection, showcases a poet in full-stride. The title harkens to ancestral connections, rooted in an image from the title poem of a mother and daughter’s gloves waving as they air dry on a clothesline. Familial relationships frequent the book, illustrating how we are both formed and undone by our deepest bonds. The title also alludes to the ocean, beautifully rendered in the cover pastel entitled Cresting Wave. Depicted is a wave in all its colors and layers, its peaks and valleys, its lights and darks. Waves are metaphors for turning points in our lives, how much push and pull there is, and how much awe (both the splendor and the terror inside that word).

     Thomas’s book opens with “Spilt Milk,” an absent mother, and a daughter crying for her. This spillage leads into “Midway,” a poem of yearning too, for chaos with a hearty dose of control. The Midway is the land of bumper cars but also of middle age, and it is brave that the expressed desires here are of a “do not go gentle” sort, of blue sparks and collisions. The oppositional impulses in this poem, for sparks to fly yet to control where they land, are at the heart of this collection. Children need boundaries amidst the openness of childhood; mothers need openness amidst the boundaries of motherhood. Adult daughters often traverse numerous terrains—as children themselves, as parents, and as caregivers to their own aging parents. This is rocky, fruitful, and familiar ground for readers, who are sure to find themselves freshly mirrored in Thomas’s pages.

     Thomas dwells in dichotomy, and in harmonious contradictions. Her topics manifest variously, from Fukushima, to Catholicism, to illness, to Matthew Shepard, to the carnival of P-Town, to the natural world. Beyond the domestic concerns of women, there are threads of the love between women, female mythology, our expectations for dressing and masking ourselves, and the twin need to unmask, too, those very expectations. For Thomas, “Ambition” is to fly as a woman, not be held down by earthly matters:


          She … willed herself not

                  to bleed, to stop breasts from budding,

          hips from curving. Not the sister on shore,

                  sewing nettle coats with bloody

          fingers. She would not be sentenced to earth

                  with one wing.

                                   (page 31)


And in “All Hallows,” the narrator’s girlhood dream was to be a matador, not a princess, for Halloween. She laments:


            No one warns little ghosts about

            the price of desire, the body’s betrayals,

            and oh, the masks of want.

                                   (page 29)


     Waving Back is exquisitely constructed. For example, the poem “Getting Over It,” with its images of whale hearts that stun with their tenacity and munificence, faces the poem “Sweet Hope,” with its streets named like boats and its emotional landscape of a barnacled, battered ship that, in the end, is buoyed. Both of these poems contain language of healing and renewal after relationships have come to an end.

     The third section focuses on the family of origin. In “Waving Back,” the gesticulation of gloves in the wind conjures the ghosts of how women once dressed and were expected to behave. Those are mores that the poet has since discarded; she has traded her girlhood crochet gloves for work gloves worn through from manual labor. The poem features a listing of the kinds of work the mother never did, contrasting the roles of women, and mothers in particular, over time. The limitations of such roles are portrayed by what the gloves are waving at: groups of similar split-level houses that seem shallow in their uniformity, that are "bright and empty." (page 49)

     Such poems speak to the complicated love between mothers and daughters, especially when the mother’s position is not one the daughter wants to inherit (and even brings the mother herself to tears behind closed doors). In fact, the father figure is the one the narrator emulates more, though he too wears multiple masks. Still, he provided trips to the library and wrote poems in his field notebook, his old workplace is remembered in terms of gold and marble, and he is finally cast as an epic hero at the crossroads of a retirement home. The complications deepen when the adult daughter becomes her mother’s caretaker, as in “Relics”:


          Soon you held tight to the string of my disappointments.

          When we hugged, you were always the first to let go.


          Now that you have forgotten my name, I whisper

          in your ears that hear only gibberish. I wash

          your face, stunned by the spill of laughter

          like a stream freed, at last, of debris.

                                   (page 51) 

In illness, a different closeness is achieved, as is a new freedom for the constrained mother.

     In “After Forty Years,” an adult brother and sister become a grown Hansel and Gretel in the face of the loss of their parents, tracking toads and birds through the woods as they try to find their footing. The watery imagery continues through this section, as natural as the tide, naming the boat that would carry a dying father to his final garden, calling a row of wheelchairs a wrackline, referring to passing deer as if they were the shadows of ships.

     The poet’s scope widens in the fourth section. Thomas continues to navigate personal narratives and plumb the past, but she also casts a wide net with poems that explore other people’s experiences and chosen family. This final section touches on resilience and the way the world’s hard edges are smoothed by life’s continuous waves. We emerge polished and reborn.

     Closing each of the four sections are short prayers to food staples, though the fourth, “Prayer to Artichoke,” steps outside the realm of the typical pantry and into the arena of the unique, and the achingly erotic. Such is the universe Thomas inhabits, one in which we are lured in with the mundane milk of the everyday and are transformed into two-winged creatures able to fly in concert with life’s daily matter.


Rebecca Hart Olander’s poetry has appeared recently in Brilliant Corners, Naugatuck River Review, and Silkworm, and her critical work has appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books and Solstice Literary Magazine. She was the winner of the 2013 Women’s National Book Association poetry contest, judged by Molly Peacock. Olander lives in Western Massachusetts where she teaches writing at Westfield State University and serves on the board of Perugia Press.