Today and Other Seasons
by Sarah Russell
27 poems, 44 pages
Publisher: Kelsay Books
To order: www.kelsaybooks.com
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Sarah Russell holds an M.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Denver and a Ph.D. in Communication Theory from the University of Colorado. After a career spent teaching, writing and editing academic prose, she has returned to writing poetry. Her first poetry collection, I lost summer somewhere was published by Kelsay Books in 2019. She resides with her husband in State College Pennsylvania and spends summers in Colorado to be near children and grandchildren. She blogs at SarahRussellPoetry.net.
Russell’s second collection of poems is based around the theme of time and the seasons. It is also about much more than this. Time moves backwards and forwards, as shown in the opening poem where the present, contained in the title ‘Today’ and the future and the past are mentioned in the opening lines: ‘a child skips toward tomorrow. / An elder yearns for yesterday’. The word ‘skips’ speaks of the energetic, youthful abandon of the child and the word ‘yearns’ suggests something less energetic and more internalised drawing on the power of memory. Russell choses her words with care. In this volume, time is not only depicted by the months of the year (five poems have specific months of the year contained in their titles) but also by the changing seasons of our lives, hinted at by titles such as ‘Metamorphosis’, ‘Reaping’ and ‘In Passing’. The way Russell makes these themes interact with each other helps to structure the poems into a cohesive whole.
Many of the poems in this volume are quite short. Brevity makes them all the more powerful. Several focus on a single subject, giving us an insight into a specific event, real or imagined, by the poet. Quite a number have wildlife in them, ‘bewildered robins’, ‘an early March calf’, ‘courting finches’, starlings on a telephone line or a winter hawk ‘in a ravaged tree’. One of my favourite animal poems is ‘November Doe’ which is quoted in full here:
The twitch of an ear betrays her,
dun against dun oaks, still as held breath.
How long has she watched me?
I look beyond for others, but she’s alone,
fat from summer grazing, her coat
already wooly for January snows.
The morning is alive, anticipating flight
as she moves, slow, along the scruff
of goldenrod that marks the meadow,
then turns back to the woods and disappears,
asking no questions.
The repetition of the word ‘dun’ somehow seals the camouflage. The question that the poet asks herself is one that we would ask ourselves if we were in that situation. The last line brings a certain symmetry to the proceedings as well as a sense of contrast between the human and the animal world. The whole tenor of the poem feels natural and spontaneous and all the lines flow with ease.
Flowers are the subject of some of Russell’s other poems: daffodils ‘who finger their way toward light’, forsythia whose blossoms are ‘tumbling down the hillside / like children laughing’, ‘spike-haired, brass blonde’ dandelions and black-eyed Susan’s that ‘gossip in a gully’.
Two ekphrastic poems, one based on Van Gogh’s ‘Arles: View from the Wheat Fields’ and the other on Cichoki’s ‘The Team’ are included in the collection. In both poems, Russell conveys a sense of the action that is taking place, which brings the poems alive because they become much more than a meditation or reflection on the artwork. A similar technique is employed in ‘Montana Man’, a poem based on a photograph by Todd Klassy called ‘End of Autumn’.
There is humour in ‘New England Winter’ which is another predominantly rural poem. ‘January Nehi’ offers one more example of the way in which Russell skilfully weaves the past into the present moment:
Just off the highway at a country store,
the customer before me bought a Nehi grape soda
in a tall, scuffed bottle, and suddenly I was eight again,
cold sweetness coloring my tongue, the bottle sweaty
in my hand, summer just starting.
A few poems on domestic themes, notably ‘Summer Wash Day 1952’ and ‘Green Tomato Chutney’, the former bringing back for me memories from my own childhood, add variety and contrast to the subject matter.
These poems, which are executed with economic precision, bring to life our daily routines and celebrate all that is familiar to us in the cycle of the seasons.