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At First Light
by Mary Eliza Crane
22 poems/51 pages/
Gazoobi Tales Publishing
Reviewed by Ed Bennett
Mary Oliver, much to her chagrin, is usually referred to as a “nature poet”. This is as inaccurate as it is unfortunate. She writes about larger issues, though frequently using nature as a backdrop or an extended metaphor. Calling her a “nature poet” is about as accurate as referring to Edgar Leigh Masters as a “graveyard poet”. It is unfortunate that poets are pigeon-holed so early in their career, especially since it obscures their communication with readers. One cannot speak to social or metaphysical themes if the reader is expecting flora and fauna.
Mary Eliza Crane’s second collection of poetry, “At First Light”, speaks, at first glance, to nature and rural themes. Once engaged in reading these poems one finds more than a single theme, though the backdrop of the poem has a decided flavor of Ms. Crane’s beloved Cascade Mountains. This collection is structured in much the same way as a good conversation: an easy segue from topic to topic where time loses its importance and each give-and-take between poet and reader reaches a new intellectual depth.
For example, her introductory poem “At First Light” begins as one would expect from a “nature poet” with
“At first light
birds still sing…”
She brings us from that point to the dangers faced by our environment from pollution. There is no sharp turn here, just a simple evolution of the opening lines to
“There is no cure
or for the world.”
The short sentence structure works to regulate the breath of anyone reading out loud and her use of enjambment is subdued, focusing the reader on the predicament of the environment rather than her own pyrotechnics.
Like the ancient Celtic bards, Ms Crane carries her heritage with her and is unafraid to place it before us. In the poignant “My Father’s Sweater” she sees her father’s image in a picture “of me as a poet”, no doubt a reference to her photo on the back cover of one of her books. Yet there is more than simply a family resemblance here as she counts the physical features that they share, yet states:
“I wear my father’s sweater
colored by Irish sheep
though he has been dead more than three years…
He remains my father
though I have lost the quality
It is my sweater now.”
It is her sweater as well as her heritage. “Irish Wake” begins with the usual stereotype of Irish mourning:
“An Irish wake is not a shot of whiskey
though seven hundred years of occupation
might have made it so.”
She interweaves the story of her family with the history of the Easter Rebellion, the Famine and the need to leave for a new country. To those of us who learned the story of how our family arrived here, her summary of the Crane family history is bittersweet. The child of every immigrant looks back across an ocean for their ancestral memories, hears the voices of childhood from a village long gone. She ends this fine poem with:
“I have my own small piece
of rocky fertile earth
but named both my children
for the sea.”
Ms. Crane ranges from the battles waged for decent housing (“Canoe Lake”) to suicide bombers to “Fasenja”, a gastronomic consideration of American policy in South Asia. While turning the pages one comes upon innocuous sounding titles that contain the seed of anger at injustice. She, like Mary Oliver, has stepped beyond the backdrop of nature and engages us in an intellectual tour de force through the important issues that touch us daily. Amazingly, she does this without raising her voice or falling into feigned outrage. In this age of invective, we could use a few more voices like Mary Eliza Crane.
On a cool fall evening, this is the kind of work that begs to be reread and contemplated. I end this here, headed for an easy chair and three fingers of Jameson’s accompanied by “At First Light”. And for Mary Crane, I say: “Slainte!”