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Review of Harborless by Cindy Hunter Morgan

Cindy Hunter Morgan. Harborless. Wayne State University Press, 2017. 65 pgs. $16.99.

Harborless, Cindy Hunter Morgan’s first full-length collection, is unusual in several respects. The book consists of forty poems responding to specific shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, wrecks that often occurred because of weather, of course, but also due to exploding boilers, waterlogged wheat, or collisions with other ships. They carried loads of pigs, Christmas trees, apples, immigrants. The poems are interesting for their content but also for their craft—they rely on memorable figurative language, incorporate a range of poetic forms, and successfully incorporate the voices of multiple characters—yet they are also entirely accessible for readers who believe they don’t like poetry.

The collection is arranged into five sections, each bracketed by “Deckhand” poems that suggest thematic concerns to be explored in the following section. The first poem, for example, “Deckhand: Scent Theory,” describes a young man who recalls his past and considers his present through aroma:

When he climbed up the deck ladder
that first morning, his shirt still smelled
of his mother’s wash line:
Dreft and sunshine.

Now what he breathes is rain
and ore, deck paint, grease,
engine oil, boiler exhaust,

Mornings there is coffee.
Sometimes he pours a bit
on the cuff of his sleeve
so later he can press his nose in it.

The poem concludes with these lines:

At night he peels
his clothes off
and drops them in a pile,

dark, stagnant puddle
of stained cotton,
cesspool of sweat turning
to mildew.

The poem progresses from pleasant scents that recall presumably pleasant memories—laundry on a line and the deckhand’s mother—through less pleasant but utilitarian scents—deck paint, engine oil—to the unequivocally vile—a “cesspool of sweat.” This job, working on a ship all day out on the lake, might have seemed romantic to the young man when he was still imagining his future, but it quickly acquires the characteristics of most physical labor. It’s exhausting work, and the rewards are slight. The speaker doesn’t directly reveal the deckhand’s thoughts here, permitting the imagery to evoke all we need to know. Such effective imagery characterizes many of the poems in the collection.

These final two stanzas of “Deckhand: Scent Theory” also illustrate Morgan’s skill with sonic devices. We might quickly notice the slant rhyme between “peels” and “pile,” but then notice the repetition of both “p” and “l” in “puddle” one line later, as well as the subsequent internal slant rhyme with “pool” in “cesspool.” In addition the “oo” of “pool” is repeated in “mildew.” Because English spelling is so inconsistent, the same sound often represented by wildly different spellings, the carryover of “pool” to “mildew” is invisible to the eye and therefore more subtle when the ear picks it up. Then there’s also the alliteration of “stagnant” and “stained” which contribute to the consonance of “cotton,” “sweat,” and “turning.” And of course, there’s assonance in “cesspool” and “sweat.” Virtually every syllable, in other words, contributes to the aural pleasure of these stanzas. It’s tempting to assume that accessible poetry will be unsophisticated in its craft, but this poem more than manages the dual challenges.

Most of the poems in Harborless are written in free verse, but Morgan also incorporates several in received forms, notably a series of erasures printed to resemble the remains of burned paper, as well as a pantoum and a couple of prose poems. Here are the first few sentences of “J. Barber, 1871”:

Peach crisp, peach pie, peach jam, peach compote, whole peaches, sliced peaches. In those hours before the peaches burned, the whole ship smelled like August in a farm kitchen. The hold was full of Michigan orchards, full of juice and sugar and the soft fuzz of peach skin.

The exuberance of the opening list is fun to read, despite its context. The rhythmic energy continues throughout the poem, which concludes with this sentence:

Peaches sizzled and spit as the ship burned, as fire consumed what was made of sugar and what was made of wood, as masts toppled like limbs pruned from fruit trees, as men rolled across the deck like windfalls, bruised and scraped, and everything was reduced to carbon and loss.

Because of the exuberant language, the last clause, “everything was reduced to carbon and loss,” becomes particularly haunting, reminding readers that despite their visions of “men roll[ing] across the deck like windfalls,” this event is not comic but tragic. Morgan’s ability to manipulate the reader’s response is impressive here, as the poem includes such attractive imagery as “each peach was seared, the sweet juice of summer briefly concentrated and contained before everything cooked, oozed, dripped, and exploded,” appealing to the reader’s desire, before it turns to the final evocative statement.

This poem, like others I’ve discussed, achieves its effect in part through its reliance on imagery associated with the land, with farming, to describe its opposite, life on water. Morgan’s reliance on agricultural imagery creates an almost nostalgic motif woven throughout the collection, such that the poems have more subtle craft-oriented relationships in addition to the obvious relationships of content.

The cities of Marquette and Munising, MI, both located on the shore of Lake Superior, have chosen Harborless as one of their community reads for next fall. A collection of poetry might be a daring choice for such a program, but this book is exactly the collection to appeal to experienced readers of poetry as well as readers who believe they don’t like poetry. Its content is compelling and its characters are sympathetic, as in the best fiction, yet its craft is both skillful and subtle. Reading and rereading this book has been exceptionally satisfying.

Review of All That Held Us by Henrietta Goodman

Henrietta Goodman. All That Held Us. BkMk Press, 2018. 66 pgs. $13.95.

Henrietta Goodman’s third collection, All That Held Us, consists of untitled Petrarchan sonnets that explore relationships among a daughter, her absent father, shamed mother, judgmental and peculiar aunt, and at least one early lover. The family is more dysfunctional than most and so makes for interesting reading. What is most striking about the collection, though, is how Goodman manages the

sonnet. Most writers in English opt for the Shakespearean version because it requires fewer repetitions of each rhyme, yet Goodman adheres to Petrarchan expectations and seems to do so with ease. Although almost all of the rhymes are true rhymes, they are never forced and are often both subtle and inventive. Similarly, the diction throughout the collection is colloquial, interestingly subverting this most classic of classical forms. In addition, she adapts the strategy of a crown of sonnets, repeating a line from one poem in the next, though the repeated line often occurs in the middle of a following sonnet rather than at its opening. The poems are woven together as they would be in a crown, that is, but more inventively, more surprisingly.

Here is the fifth poem in the collection:

It wasn’t innocent, the way they mocked
each other, screeched and grumbled a grammar
of perfect bitterness—wore it, armor
of status, even though my mother hocked
her rings in Charlotte. So easily shocked,
my aunt had packed away the old glamour
of dances—sweat-stained dresses, the clamor
for a partner. She sprayed Lysol and locked
her door when my friends came, called me the child
in notes she wrote to God or no one, scraps
of paper buried under piles of stuff.
I called her shithead once at thirteen, wild
to separate myself, to spring the traps,
to find out whether words would be enough.

One of Goodman’s strategies is to use “they” toward the beginning of a poem without an explicit antecedent. Although the referent soon becomes clear, readers sometimes interpret “they” to mean one couple, e.g. the father and mother, when it refers to another, e.g. the mother and aunt. This ambiguity, which from a less-skilled poet would result simply in confusion, here reinforces the turmoil of this family—so much is unstated, so much can be inferred only through close observation.

The form here, particularly Goodman’s choices of rhyming words, reinforces the content with understated wit. The rhymed words “grammar,” “armor,” “glamour,” and “clamor,” for example, suggest in themselves the ambivalences within this family. Arguments proceed according to an expected form, and the two women’s symbiotic misery ironically armors them against further risk, and the potential for pain risk entails. “Glamour” might once have been desirable but is now characterized distastefully, by sweat and noise. The aunt’s attitude particularly can be characterized as the sum of these words. Goodman’s facility with end rhyme is enhanced by her attention to sonic effects more generally, the alliteration of “grumbled a grammar” or “whether words would” for instance, or the near rhyme of “notes” and “wrote.” Throughout this poem, the sounds are aggressive, the hard “k” and short “a” being particularly insistent.

The aunt’s character is conveyed here through memorable detail, especially in the sestet. She sprays Lysol to disinfect her house after guests arrive, refers to her niece as “the child,” and writes complaints to some invisible figure. There’s a second turn in this sonnet, midway through the sestet, as the speaker shifts attention to herself and her own desire to escape this place and these people. She discovers the power of language, not simply to evoke a reaction as she likely did here but also to validate her own experience.

The following poem begins with a line adapted from this one: “The clamor for a partner—how to give / it up?” This subsequent poem explores the adult lives of the mother and aunt, their tamped down desires converted to arrogance and bitterness. Several poems in this section focus on the relationship between the mother and the aunt. The speaker herself observes the adults but only comes to understand, as children will, a few years later. The relationship of the two women is invariably inflected by knowledge of the man who appeared for one of them, briefly, a few years earlier, the man who came to the house only once after the speaker was born but who is as psychically present as if he had moved in and claimed the lazyboy and tv remote. Midway through the collection, two poems illustrate, through their structure, how one relationship infuses the others. One poem describes the baking of a birthday cake for the mother, an unusual event in that very little actual cooking otherwise occurred in this family. The line that links the octave to the sestet states: I think they loved each other / once, shared their mother’s cookbook, watched TV.” The next poem begins with this line: “I think they loved each other once, or thought / they did, the day they fished Lake Elsinore / from a sailboat he’d bought—a whim before / they conceived me.” When the reader begins this poem, the temptation is to assume that the “they” in the first line consists of the same individuals as the “they” in the similar line from the poem before, that is, the mother and aunt. By line three, however, that assumption is proven wrong, and the “they” who “loved each other” becomes the mother and father. The dyads cannot escape each other, and Goodman guarantees that readers understand this through not only the form and content of the individual poems, but also through her arrangement of the poems within the collection. Goodman’s thoughtful attention to the progression of the individual poems and to the effect of the entire collection is, for me, one of the most satisfying elements of All That Held Us.

Like many readers of contemporary poetry, I suspect, I spend most of my time with free verse and, more recently, experimental and hybrid forms. Many poets still write in received forms, some regularly, some more occasionally. All That Held Us, though, is unique among collections I’ve read over the last few decades, not simply because Goodman has written an extended series of Petrarchan sonnets, but because she has both retained the conventions of the form and adapted it to the 21st century. The poems are a pleasure to read individually, and they are even more pleasurable to read as a group.