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Gathering the Harvest
by Mary Jo Balistreri
57 poems/ 81 pp/ $18
Bellowing Ark Press
PO Box 55564
Shoreline, WA 98155
Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
In a recent interview in the NY Times Book Review, Dennis Lehane spoke of the importance of the writer as storyteller. The success of a storyteller is not measured in books sold or awards won, rather it is in the ability of the teller to engage the audience. By this standard, Mary Jo Balistreri’s book, Gathering the Harvest, is a success. She has the ability to describe details, be it a painting or radiation therapy, with an insight usually found in the most accomplished poets. Her imagery is crystalline and by the end of each poem one becomes aware that it has taken an emotional hold of your soul.
The book is divided into four parts with distinct subjects yet each section is part of an overall theme of gathering memories of love, art and the difficult struggle with illness and recovery. The poems are assembled as a force of nature, with a calm period in the first section. The calm builds with the loss of family in section two to the emotional cataclysm of the poet’s own illness. The final section is a thanksgiving for her recovery, for the health care professionals who were with her and ends with “I Believe”, a hymn of thanks to all of those things she holds precious in this life.
Usually, this type of a collection turns inward and centralizes on the poet. Gathering the Harvest takes a different tack by looking at the events from a different point of view. The first section, Echoes of Desire, has several ekphrastic poems that are soliquoys delivered by the artist’s model. The subjects are paintings by Edward Hopper and one excellent one entitled “Lisa Gheradini Sits for Her Portrait”. This is the first work I’ve seen where Mona Lisa herself speaks:
“See how it excites him
painting my shadowed eyes,
the way he lingers with my mouth - …
Desire, mine, his.
How that canvas yearns.”
The most evocative poem in the section is “Lady of the Rising Steam” based on a chance meeting with a homeless woman in November of 1976. The emotional shifts in the poem, from fear to compassion to regret are powerful, a remarkable feat since the incident occurred 36 years ago. The power of the poem is all the more remarkable since it took place so long ago and is still clear in the poet’s eye.
In sections two and three (“Gathering Stillness” and “Into silence”) Ms. Balistreri builds the tension with poems about loss, both immediate and imminent. There are elegies to her mother and grandson, both deceased, The pain in these poems is palpable yet the poet’s voice does not fall into the trap of pathos, rather she finds an objectivity that transforms them into a powerful, loving memory. In her poem “For My Father at Ninety Three”, we find her once again looking askew at her subject. The advanced age of her father has no references to decrepitude or impending death. Instead, she writes:
“He accepts his stone self,
makes peace with water’s wear, wind’s abrasion.
He carries his shaping nowhere,
a phoenix in the scarlet flame of the sun.”
In these two sections we see the poet not as one who surrenders to her predicament but gathering strength from the small graces that make life palatable. During her radiation therapy she is concerned about the mask and other equipment meant to protect the rest of her body from the effects of radiation but takes comfort in hearing Eva Cassidy singing “Over the Rainbow” as she submits to the procedure. She gathers more than just physical strength during this time as is evidenced in her poem “The Suit”. The poem begins with her speaking to her mother with the lines:
“Tonight I’m wearing the suit you loved,
the one I wore to your funeral.”
Again, the poem turns away from melancholy and ends with the triumphant:
“…We’re going out to dinner, some posh
club with people we hardly know. I feel sad
and alone and that’s why
I chose this suit. A knight’s chain mail,
the kind a mother would give.
Protective and magical.”
What is so stunning about this allusion is not just the transformation of the poet’s choice of strength over sadness but the change in the very illusion itself. Spartan mothers would present their sons with their first armor and, while handing them the shield, would say “Come back with this shield or on it”. The fatalism of the allusion is blunted with the very last line. Death is erased from the equation and the mother’s gift is one of protection.
Mary Jo Balistreri began her career as a concert pianist but, as Gathering the Harvest makes clear, poetry is her passion. She has collected a series of impeccably crafted poems into a book whose climax and denouement seem more at home in a novel. I’ve quoted extensively from this wonderful book in part because I could not choose a more limited group of poems. Each page is a revelation, a song in praise of life and living that cannot be easily pulled apart for examination. The whole is stronger than any grouping of individual poems and this unity of vision presents an optimistic world view by someone who has journeyed to the dark places as well as the light. She paraphrases the artist Pierre Bonnard speaking to his wife, Marthe with the words “life lives not in the brushstroke, but in between.”
Mary Jo Balistreri lives and thrives in between those brushstrokes. Her poetry, derived from her life, is crystal clear and honest. Her language is direct and her presentation is admirable, even down to the last detail. Reading this work, I am reminded of another quote from Bonnard:
“Work on the accent, it will enliven the whole.”
Ms. Balistreri’s “accent” is pitch perfect.
2001- 2013, Quill & Parchment
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