Light: Poems by Mary Dillingham
a review by celia miles
books of poetry are for keeping, just as some are for putting on the
shelf and eying occasionally when one wants the simplicity of childhood
nostalgia for another era or the challenge of wending ones intellectual
way through the linguistic maze of anothers mind. But some poems
are for keeping, for returning to, for sticking close by. Such are the
poems in Nancy Dillinghams third book, First Light.
images are soft as smoke rising, (First Light),
some slice through your senses so sharply you hurt (On the edge
of madness save for fractious fowl/garrulous guineas/ in the field/creating
a din...). Some poems are so expressive they leave you knowing
youll never experience a particular scene or object the same way
after reading Nancys take on it: Wheat field, for
example: Liquescent/as fire/the grass/like glass/undulates/with
light. This image stays in the same way Wordsworths Solitary
Reaper, yon solitary Highland lass remains with the reader long
after her song and his words are gone.
Ranging from six lines (10 words) to three pagesimagistic, narrative,
dense as a laurel thicket, clean as the hogkillers knife, precise
as a lightning flashthese poems catch at your spirit; they linger
like a memory. Simple? Hardly.
Ive been rereading some of Stanley Kuntizs poems, returning
to them after long years of being overwhelmed by their syntax in college;
I treat them like intellectual exercises, studying the structure, the
diction, the punctuation, finding in some of them, over-grammar-ed and
over-flighty as they are, a pleasure in discovery. After long careful
reading, an occasional wow...thats what hes saying! Perfectly
legitimate, but reading that way is thin pleasure beside reading First
Lights perfectly honed phrases, perfectly aligned words. Dillinghams
poems tap our emotional keyboard with deft and delicate, yet meaty and
strong vocabulary. Shes not playing with the readers
mind so much as illuminating the spirit. Rather than being irritated
by what the poet conceals, the reader is drawn in by the silences between
words, the spareness, the spare, the sensory. As a master carver removes
to reveal essence, this poet pares away verbiage and peels back syllables.
The result is stellarpoems blindingly immediate as sticking tongue
to frozen metal.
Dillingham writes of the pioneer woman (Pioneer woman/ in all
my silences/ I think of you), the mountain woman (There
is a landscape/ of the heart/ that sets us apart), and gives her
the universal womanhood grounded in the specific (Still/ as a
white sapling/ she stands/ daguerreotyped/ by the night.). The
listing of herbs, the description of a diamondback rattlesnake, the
fence of flowersits all poetry.
This collection moves us through the seasons, through the life, the
hurts, the beauty of a hard life with touches of humor (surely most
mountain kids remember the woeful Big Toe Tale); but theres
no glossing over the painful miscarriage, the snakebitten child, the
mood of the wife, the umber statue in the dusk, who waits
in the doorway when the unfaithful husband returns from his week with
her sister in Idaho.
If youre going to buy just one book of poetry this year, buy First
Light. If youre going to buy three books of poetry, buy Dillinghams
New Ground (1998), her The Ambiguity of Morning (2001), and First Light.
And dont expect these books to gather dust or merely add to your
shelved collection; they are to be read again and again. To paraphrase
Eudora Weltys story title: A good poem is hard to find. You can
find plenty of them in First Light.
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