My Body the Guitar
Poems by Karla Linn Merrifield
119 poems ~ 155 pages
Publisher: Before Your Quiet Eyes Holograph Series
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Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
In the acclaimed 1995 movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, music teacher Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfus) is mentoring a student learning the clarinet. The student can’t seem to get the hang of it even though her teacher has tried every technique in his teaching toolbox. In quiet desperation, Mr. Holland asks the student to imagine the most beautiful scene she can. The student describes the scene to her teacher, who then replies, “Play to that. Immerse your whole being into that beautiful place.” The student then plays a lovely melody much to Mr. Holland’s admiration.
I thought about that movie and that scene as I prepared to review Karla Linn Merrifield’s new collection, My Body the Guitar. Without a doubt, Merrifield knows something about giving herself wholly and totally to the promptings of poetry and music. I might add, she knows something about love. She would, I’m certain, join the chorus of voices who affirm that without love, the arts are a futile enterprise.
My Body the Guitar, is presented in three divisions: “Part 1, Mere Mortal,” features a series of Études. An Étude is a piece of music played for the purpose of instruction in technique. These are fascinating poems that link the poet’s body in direct relationship to her instrument. “Part 2, Local Heroes,” pays tribute to folks within the poet’s inner circle who influenced, motivated, and taught her through the years. “Part 3, Mighty Gods,” honors a virtual pantheon of great guitarists (by my count, more than 18) which provide a delicious smorgasbord of artistic range and depth. I was delighted to recognize Jimi Hendrix, Tom Petty, and Eric Clapton listed within Merrifield’s gallery of gods.
A Word about Form and Style
Craftsmanship has always been a hallmark of Karla Merrifield’s work. The instant volume highlights the poet’s skills in free verse, pantoum, sestina, double-fibonacci, sonnet, haiku, tanka, abecedarian and more. All of these, mind you, are orchestrated in a symphonic score that delights eye, ear, and heart.
“Gentle Weep,” (Preface) sets a tone that provides a clue to the poet’s life. A life in which her body, music, and poetry become a single being.
I don’t have much longer
in the playing fields of love.
So when he looks at the tip
of my ring finger and sees
under the bistro lamp a nascent
callous he perceives desire.
All I do is metaphor,
the still g-string pressed
again, again, again, in B minor’s
third position—thus my hand
remembers what my body
learns of its embodiment.
I am the guitar.
Play me now.
“Sonnet from the Bar,” (featuring experimental “riffs” on the traditional form), is representative of the poems comprising “Part 2, Local Heroes.” Merrifield is clearly appreciative of early influences on her life and what she would become as a professional writer and accomplished musician.
In the church of the Golden Lion Pub,
we tipplers of Hogshead and Guinness,
we supplicants of rock ’n roll music
make a joyful noise unto the spirit of guitars electric.
We sway to the bluesy riffs,
throb to the reverb and loop,
tremble like tremolo strings,
our souls fiercely plucked, our hearts softly fingered.
For here live again the lesser gods of distant youth:
O, Clapton; o, Santana; o Richards; o, Waters.
As the Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Gibson gently weep,
my litany goes long and on into rhythm’s font of Time.
I am the ’60s love child I once was re-amplified,
praying that the mythified chords within abide.
I recall attending the Illinois State Fair in my youth, (circa 1960s). At the time I was part of a 4-piece rock ’n roll band. My idol was Lonnie Mack, arguably one of the finest blues players of all time. Mack played a Flying “V” guitar. I was mesmerized by his hit recording of Memphis. Those long-ago musical memories returned to me as I enjoyed “Part 3, Mighty Gods.” My heart was stirred as I read poems conjuring some of the greatest musicians ever to play. If you have a favorite musician, it is a good bet that you will find a poem attributed to him or her.
Songwriter Harlan Howard is credited with the now famous quote: “Country music is three chords and the truth.” While My Body the Guitar covers the whole range of musical genres, and musical greats, even more importantly, Karla Linn Merrifield is about the truth that inhabits her life, and her body, the guitar.