Edge of the Echo
by KB Ballentine
98 Poems ~ 128 pages
Publisher: Iris Press
To Order: https://irisbooks.com/
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
One of the highlights of my youth was a trip with my parents to Meramec Caverns. This remarkable cave-system located near Sullivan, MO, in the Ozarks, provided my brothers and me with a stunningly beautiful experience of the natural world. Not satisfied with simply enjoying our surroundings we soon learned about an even more interesting phenomenon: “Echoes.” In no time at all we felt the ire of our parents for the ruckus we caused by our fascination with sound waves bouncing off walls like rubber balls and careening back to us. Chagrined, our parents cut short our visit to Meramec Caverns.
I thought about that experience as I rode echoing waves through KB Ballentine’s fascinating new collection, Edge of the Echo. Its unique title suggests the collection’s overall thrust. Key words: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, comprise its divisions. Ballentine’s poetry, echoes with power, wisdom, originality, and craftsmanship as she dwells in her elemental world.
As she avers in her prologue, Ballentine has “A Story Worth Telling”:
Nibs and quill scratch vellum deep with ink
like the point of a spear, a hawk gripping cliff tops.
Permanent loops and blots feather Amergin’s words,
seal them into scrolls unsung–
unwound seven times seven generations later.
Letters shaping into language ripple like ocean waves
spilling into dark and whispered rooms: listen.
Unfamiliar with the name “Amergin,” I did some research. Turns out that Amergin Glúingel, along with his six brothers figure significantly in the origins of Ireland. This mythological icon is credited as the source of Ireland’s name. The myth-cycle surrounding Amergin is fascinating in and of itself. More importantly for this reviewer is the spiritual aura traceable to Amergin. More on this later.
Ballentine introduces each division with a quotation from Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, (1956-2008). A figure of immense worldwide influence, O’Donohue is a felt presence in Ballentine’s work. By “felt” is meant the poet’s ability to weave O’Donohue’s thought into her work while maintaining her own uniquely talented voice.
Source of the breath
that enables flowers to flourish,
and calls the dark-rooted trees
to ascend int blossom.
While Ballentine is no slave to her divisions she deftly crafts her poems for neat fits within the announced topic. This is “Always the Wind”:
February sobs a chiffon frost,
morning sky like a parchment, bone.
Bits of star, snow float like cottonwood,
shiver in porcelain air.
And the voice of the mountain summons,
my heart thumping its slow dirge.
A stream–ice lacing edges–
spatters the rocks, leaps
and plunges again to alabaster ground.
The fringe of winter circles us,
spring’s pearl swelling the belly of earth.
Let us salute the silence
and certainty of mountains:
their sublime stillness,
their dream-filled hearts.
I felt a part of the earth itself, its unrelenting hardness, as Ballentine channels archaeology and life in “Through the Sod”:
Follow the stony path to Caherconnell–
firepit cold and ashless, wind colder still
as it breaks, blows through the gaps,
taps my spine. Rain spits
and the chill persists, though it’s June.
Calves nose for water, for grass in a farmer’s field.
Waves of green erode into gray on slate gray.
Spades shape the rock, the dirt–
archaeologists pursuing the past
in bits of chert, of clay.
They brush away layers of today,
hooded crows circle silently,
watch from the hedgerows.
Secrets safe and silent as your grave.
Throughout the volume, Ballentine’s work is a clinic on craftsmanship. Note the economy of language, rich verbs and nouns, internal rhyme, personification, alliteration. And finally, life-application: spades brush away layers of today, but the secrets, the secrets [of yesterday] remain safe and silent.
To be loved means to be consumed in the flame’
to love is to shine with inexhaustible light.
Fire is everywhere for this poet. Who among us would not treasure “Saturday Mornings”:
I like the way your body warms the morning,
sheets a nest of softness and scent.
How sunrise infuses the blinds,
the curtains, wraps us in golden light.
The ticking of your watch and the heater’s grumble
the only sounds beneath our sleepy murmurs.
Photos grin from the dresser,
dust dancing in swelling brightness.
Your pajama pants worn and nubby under my hand,
the coffee maker beeps, almond roast luring
us from bed. Together we smooth the pillows,
the comforter. I make scones while you build a fire,
cherry wood, hickory beginning to flame,
to heat the room, me–as you have.
Let us bless the humility of water,
always willing to take the shape
of whatever otherness holds it.
You have heard of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. Don’t miss “Thirteen Skeins of Irish knowing.” They show the “humility” of water. Here are three samples:
In emerald fields
braided haystacks, men
stagger in wind.
A Woman and wool thread
knit a home.
A woman and wool thread and blanket stiches
Like three chains,
the Trinity braids my life–
Ballentine’s range of reading and literary sources is a tribute to a well-studied scholar who knows what she is doing. This collection is more than worth its modest asking price.
Above, I referred to the influence of Irish myth on KB Ballentine’s work. As this stellar volume draws to a close, the title poem “Edge of the Echo” appears. It is a satin ribbon adorning the whole. This poem breathes the very breath of Amergin Glúingel.