by Mary Jo Balistreri
57 poems, 85 pages
Publisher: FutureCycle Press, USA
To order: www.futurecycle.org
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
The title of Mary Jo Balistreri’s latest collection, Still, attracts attention because it stands on its own as one word. That word has to do a lot to earn its keep which is why its meaning is expanded upon in terms of its deployment as an adjective, a noun and an adverb. In each case, these different grammatical categories are backed up by examples featuring the word “still” and its many synonyms. This is before we even reach the table of contents. The expectation is that this collection will explore the word “still” to the full. The cover art work, Tangerine with Leaf by George Hodan is just as memorable because it is one tangerine and one leaf. A still life composed of one fruit. In keeping with the title, its singularity is striking.
This generous collection of 57 poems is presented in five distinct sections of roughly equal proportions. Helpful notes that give some background to the poems are included at the end. The titles of some of the poems betray an interest in painting either directly or indirectly (some of the titles such as Self-Portrait with Masks, Woman Wrapped in Orange, Boating on the Yerres and Mademoiselle Bossière Knitting read like the titles of paintings while others betray a preoccupation with light and color). Poems with titles, such as Tomorrow You Go Up in Smoke and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground beg to be read almost immediately. Other poems speak of domesticity or reveal an interest in outdoor activities which are often tied to a particular time and place.
In the opening poem, I Say Yes, Balistreri references Gerard Manley Hopkins and his concept of “inscape”: that intrinsic feeling for describing the rich and revealing “oneness” of any natural object or landscape. For Hopkins it was always associated with God’s presence in the world, revealed in energy, beauty, pattern and design. Balistreri describes the process of penetrating through to the true inscape of a scene as “living into / the thing” as she writes about the visual effect of sunlight on an ocean surface, of how even the wind “cannot erase / the diamond-dazzle or sheen of light /swallowing sailboats in its maw.” The concept of “inscape” is never far from Waiting for the Light Rail, a poem that features much later in the collection. Here, Balistreri writes about the importance of being in the “now of now”, of being receptive in the act of waiting, waiting for the train and waiting for the word. Here, on the cusp of summer, it is the wind that ruffles the waiting woman’s hair, it is the wind that will carry the sound of the approaching train and, most importantly, it is the wind that “is the breath that writes the living poem”.
A key word that keeps appearing in the book is “color”. The word is present in at least fourteen of the poems and individual colors are present in abundance in poems such as You’ve Never Seen Blue Like This and Woman Wrapped in Orange. In Self-Portrait with Masks, Balistreri explains how one color can mask another when other combinations of colors are added to it.
Draw yourself, she said. Pick a primary color.
What is primary, I wondered as my first-grade
teacher handed out manila paper.
She gave instructions in red, yellow and blue.
I chose the yellow crayon, the yellow of buttercups,
the gold drops Dad called Mother’s curls…
At one stage, the child in the poem looks back as if she is already adult, to ask
What happened to the yellow of me?
References to artists are frequent in her work. Balistreri is a poet who likes spending time with art.
Music is never far away either. References to composers (Mahler), popular artists (Nat King Cole, Leonard Cohen) or musical terminology (tone clusters, contrapuntal rhythms, diminished fifths) abound. This should not surprise us since Balistreri had been a concert pianist and harpsichordist for most of her life before turning to writing poetry.
In these poems we find the stillness of a family photograph, the stillness of reflection and contemplation, the stillness of discovering her mother in a painting by Mary Cassatt and the stillness of death. The most powerful poems in the book are undoubtedly those dealing with crisis and loss. The sequence of poems written for her father are very moving indeed. How to Deal with the Dead is remarkably upbeat and full of good advice:
Expect to feel a rollercoaster of emotion. Intensity.
Numbness isn’t rare. A flood of tears after coming upon
that chocolate chip cookie mix in the grocery is common.
Despair and lethargy creep up like kudzu. Curse.
The dead are used to cursing. It brings unabated release.
The dark humour of the closing lines show how far Balistreri has managed to travel in coming to terms with grief:
are fiercely independent. Give them room to breathe.
In an interview published in Poppy Road Review (July 25, 2014) Balistreri was asked to sum up her personality in five words. The answer she gave was “enthusiasm, tenacity, spontaneity, determination and compassion.” The words were well-chosen for the poems in this collection display all of these qualities in abundance.