The Joseph Tree
by Isabel Chenot
56 poems ~ 75 pages
Format: 5 ¼’’ x 8’’ ~ Perfect Bound ~ Paperback
Price: $12.00/ ~ $14.00/
Publisher: Wiseblood Books
ISBN-10 : ‎ 1951319249
ISBN-13 : ‎ 978-1951319243
To Order: available on &

Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, once wrote, “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it.” Thomas’ seminal wisdom came to me, like a surprise, as I enjoyed Isabel Chenot’s newest collection, The Joseph Tree. I began to question the stability of “my” world.

         whatever falls back into dust

         newborn, war-torn, time-buried–
         waits for Spring.

These lines, from “Waiting for Spring,” resonate with me. Chenot feels deeply for a friend who had to bury her own “little” son. The best poets know about such feelings. They find ways to deal with the dreadful impacts of life. What Chenot feels is genuine. This is what makes The Joseph Tree so compelling. Don’t expect easy answers to hard questions. Chenot will have nothing of platitudes or time-worn clichés.

Organized into three sections: I. Broken in Simple Lines; II. Sometimes the Light; III. Prophecies and Dreams, each contributes to the poet’s thesis that poetry connects the human family in a “world-old awe.” Poetry is “in our bones,” as Chenot avers in her preface:

         bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,

a wonderfully poetic line from Genesis 2:23, sets a tone of unbreakable connection between people, earth, and that Greater Power, which (for the poet) holds all things together.

Broken in Simple Lines: Poems from California

The landscapes of her home state inform Chenot’s love of natural beauty. She couples her sense of empathy for her friend’s loss with the earth’s constant nearness. She understands that seasonal transformations have a way of speaking to the heart. The poems included in this section are poems of movement. Titles such as, “Outbound,” “Going West,” “The Road Home,” and “Cartography,” paint compelling landscapes. They remind us that the earth is the work of a personal deity who cares. In time of loss, a sustaining voice is there, as in “Star-Crossed”:

         A heart must be broken
         to hold this land–

         broken to pieces
         to receive the light’s

         relentless pulse
         on earth’s dry, spitted wrist;

         the barbs of planets visible at distances
         in darkness, staking the first

         of time.

         The heart must be regathered,

I hasten to point out that although this poet is a woman of deep faith, I find no hint of overstated piety. Many are punctuated by references to Holy Scripture. They praise the presence of a Reality that grounds her and offers that same Ground-of-Reality to her dear friend. Your reviewer feels this, needs this.

Sometimes the Light: Poems from the Mid-West*

Light is pervasive throughout Chenot’s work. During troubled times, Chenot has a way of weaving light, landscape, and truth in a kind of pastoral care for her grieving friend. Note these interwoven strands from “Rain on the Mown Grass”:

         As gentle after snow and ice as rain,
         or dew transpired on a stem:
         a scent of quenching, and I ascertain
         your emanation come

         clean around me: the new-mown stubble
         has a radiant hue.

         Water is a chrysalis to hand heaven on a bruised weed,
         so the light can refresh what leans sore after cutting.
         Angels whisper peace to pain

         on each blade wound to break or double:
         their clear wings dangle in reflected blue.

*Editor’s Note: Principally around Lake Michigan.

Prophesies and Dreams

The Joseph Tree progresses through stages: darkness of loss, glimmerings of light, then, into the fullness of divine light. This phenomenon is beautifully summarized in the short poem, “Old Light”, dedicated to Søren Kierkegaard:

         I can see the light behind my eyes
         in darkness, where no other light is seen–

         this warm, gold, and elusive fluttering
         that slips around focally dark peripheries

         can only be coming from my mind,
         dazzled with someone else’s bright,

         ancient thinking. I lie down in the darkness blind
         and dazzled–from behind–and blinking.

The poet knows there are no guarantees of happiness. What she offers is a companion who,

         … has borne our griefs
         and carried our sorrows. –Isaiah 53:4

Out of her friend’s darkness, Chenot draws back the curtain of light. What I alluded to above, I now confirm: my world will never be the same. The “why” is nicely summarized in this excerpt from “Waiting for Spring”:

         Because of death, there’s something more to be.
         Because a mother braces being against loss.
         Because a soldier wants us to live free.
         Because Christ walked through desert to a cross–
         whatever falls back into dust

         newborn, war-torn, time-buried–
         waits for Spring.

The Joseph Tree, breathes the fresh air of Spring.


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