POETRY REVIEWS: Lovely chronicles of everyday life

  • Article by: ELIZABETH HOOVER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2011 - 2:00 PM

Three collections by poets with Twin Cities ties depict the world as both wondrous and accessible.

"Pretend the World," by Kathryn Kysar

For readers reluctant to read poetry because they "just don't get it," three books by poets with Twin Cities ties offer limpid poems that chronicle daily life in accessible language.

"What's Left Is the Singing," by Mary Kay Rummel (Blue Light Press, $15.95)

Rummel's sixth volume takes readers through the author's time in a convent and into her life after she left -- marriage, children and travels. The lure that drew her from the convent was art; she heard a "wind-aroused river" in a recording of Van Cliburn playing Tchaikovsky, and snuck off to read fiction that the Mother Superior forbade. She writes, "Each book, each quote led her / away from the life she was living."

Many of the poems deal with Rummel's travels to Ireland. There she hears the voices of her grandmothers "sometimes in tandem, sometimes circling." While the Ireland poems read explicitly as elegies, an elegiac tone prevails throughout the book. She writes, "I inherit the dead," "What's missing remains / in the echo of train clatter" and "He was always gone or leaving." The persistently mournful tone creates a sameness in the book that is punctuated by a smattering of ecstatic moments when the speaker sees God in a Van Gogh painting or joyously dances at her son's wedding.

"Pretend the World," by Kathryn Kysar (Holy Cow! Press, $15)

In this, her second volume of poetry, Kysar is also a studious chronicler of her life, starting with her girlhood on a Minnesota farm and moving into adulthood. She writes of first kisses, packing lunches for her children and spending time at an arts colony. Kysar does dip her toe into the wider world, with poems on subjects including Kosovo and the 2005 Red Lake school shootings, but these poems skim the surface and simply describe what one would see in a newspaper.

Politics enter the book like they do the speaker's life in "Under a Plastic Tarp." In this poem, she sees a picture of a woman huddling under a tarp with a sick infant in Baghdad. The speaker asserts she is linked with the woman in Baghdad through "Fire and water, / ... the hungry eyes and mouths of waiting children." But given that the speaker's daughter "plunks down her crust, / and joyously announces I'm done, I'm full!" the connection strains credibility and makes the speaker seem unaware of her privilege. She writes, "Pretending the world is safe, I close the paper," but this speaker doesn't need to pretend her world is safe -- after all, she can close the paper.

In Kysar's poems the world is ordinary: Cows low, ditches are muddy and stars shimmer.

"Six Rivers," by Jenna Le (New York Quarterly Books, $14.95)

In contrast, the world in Jenna Le's debut collection is strange. Love is like "eating spaghetti with a spoon," New York is "a mermaid with a golden tail / and theatrical breasts" and a river has "goose-bumped" skin.

Le, a second-generation Vietnamese-American, grew up outside Minneapolis and has an M.D. from Columbia University. "Six Rivers" is organized into six sections named after various rivers. The first four (Perfume, Mississippi, Charles and Hudson) are rivers that played a prominent role in Le's biography. The final two -- the Aorta and the Styx -- are more conceptual.

Le writes with a refreshing artlessness, her direct and simple sentences creating a deadpan humor. In "Mom's Cocks," she writes about her mother remembering roosters "rubbing their feather-padded genitals / against sofa legs" in her childhood home in Vietnam. She calls America "the Halloween costume / my immigrant father / rented and never returned."

While her phrasing is sometimes clumsy, her work reminds us why poetry can be so exciting -- not because it shows us the world as we already know it, but because it takes the world we already know and makes it strange and new.

Elizabeth Hoover is a book critic in Pittsburgh.

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  • "What Is Left Is the Singing," by Mary Kay Rummel

  • "Six Rivers," by Jenna Le

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