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Poets' Corner

November 30, 2003|Carol Muske-Dukes

The White Eyelash: Poems; Susan Kinsolving; Grove Press: 240 pp., $13 paper

Susan KINSOLVING'S first full-length book, "Dailies & Rushes," was a sudden and dazzling success d'estime. My own review (for another newspaper) noted her "powerful and practiced repertory of formal gestures," and other critics praised her work as "grand and almost terrifying." After such tributes and an award or two, the expectation that Kinsolving would manage a repeat performance was shaky. Yet here is "The White Eyelash," proving that a poet can carefully sustain solid inventive work from book to book, poem to poem.

"The White Eyelash" is a long book (perhaps a bit too long) and somewhat daunting in its formal styles and fashionable-sass voice -- armored syllabics and rhymes, some internal, some "ex", endlessly chiming with Horatian rhythms and Martial-esque gags. There are carefully plotted sections with titles like "At the Exit" and "No Longer Here." Comic relief is paramount in a collection which, on one hand, describes and elegizes the demise of the poet's "demented mother" with black exactitude, then counter-balances the grief with some truly nutty near-doggerel:

He saw his lost libido

deep in her jalapeno.

If you experienced that as painful, then avoid some of her "Unfortunate Ice Creams," including Calamari Crunch, Praline with Parakeet Feet and Marshmallow Milk of Magnesia.

These giddy "commercial breaks" provide relief from the tough-minded, powerful "nursing-home" sonnets -- and from the lyrics for a "Cantata" commissioned by Glimmerglass (lyrics that seem extraneous to this collection).

This feeling of crazy experimentation coexists with a firm formal control, which produces a slightly schizophrenic but grounded and lively perspective. The book is filled with energetic echoes of everyone from Frost -- " ... how to be acquainted with / the night without disturbing its peace" -- to Shakespeare -- " ... nest again, or (perchance) to dream" -- to a dark family secret, echoing in and out of a mother's reluctant speech.

Here, syntax is all: Out of its altering patterns deep insight occurs again and again. Insouciant and ambitious, Kinsolving steers her dappled craft to safe harbor.

*

Torn Sky: Poems; Debra Nystrom; Sarabande: 88 pp., $12.95 paper

Debra Nystrom's first book, "A Quarter Turn," was a polite, accomplished volume: But it did not begin to prepare us for the raw, kinetic, Willa Cather-echoing landscape of "Torn Sky," an ambitious, intimate portrait of dreamlike extremes -- prairie vastness versus the complex architecture of the personal.

The poems are set in a fierce, searingly unsentimental South Dakota, where miles of Scandinavian farmland unroll next to the mysterious, grieving reservation acres:

Along the riverbed cottonwoods

flashing silver under-leaves in the wind --

what could they be signaling?

if you made it here you had

one hundred sixty vacant acres

to prove up, then claim for good; nobody

watching, only prairie larks

afloat like dust in the bottomless sky.

There is an autobiographical turn to the poems here -- they track the author's growing-up years -- yet they stream in and out of temporal "dams" or stopped moments: the freakishness of feeding cows in sub-zero weather, a surreal ladies' room "scalping" of a cheerleader, the testimony of the dying at Wounded Knee filling the background.

The day-to-day backbreaking labor of farming, a small town's uneasy relationship to the neighboring Lakota Rosebud Reservation, then the subject's inexorable movement into adult life, city life, the birth of a child. These experiences flow together under the great torn sky (an image from the journals of Lewis and Clark) of the title. Nystrom's tone never falters; it is deeply felt but never nostalgic. It is permeated with a dark soaring wonder that makes this book uncommon: sky-haunted, unexpected and utterly unforgettable.

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