Small as Hope in the Helicopter Rain
by Lisa Akus
17 poems, 30 pages
Publisher: Červená Barva Press, 2018
To order: www.thelostbookshelf.com
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Lisa Akus has had poems published in Congeries (Connotation Press), Lake Effect, Redactions, and in the anthology Double Kiss: Stories, Poems, Essays on the Art of Billiards (Mammoth Books, 2017). Her poem ‘Killdeer’ received an honourable mention for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Erie, PA with her partner, the poet Sean Thomas Dougherty, and their two daughters Amara Rumi and Andaluzja Akhmatova. ‘Small as Hope in the Helicopter Rain’ is her debut collection.
The cover image, showing the branches and leaves of a maple tree somehow epitomises the emotional terrain and thinking behind this collection for maples are widely held to be a symbol of unity, tolerance and peace. They are also symbols of strength and endurance.
‘Small as Hope in the Helicopter Rain’ is a collection of 17 poems centred around family. Three poems are dedicated to each of her children (two daughters and a grown-up son) and one poem is dedicated to her brother. Tender and lyrical, these poems explore hopes, aspirations and fears on a level that is both intuitive and intellectually engaging.
The titles on the contents page are intriguing. Often direct, such as ‘You Want An Encore’, some read like phrases lifted from a longer sequence, for example, ‘Less Like Strides Toward Anything’ while others surprise us by substituting one expected word with its opposite or inserting an additional word. Take, for example, ‘How Nothing Ever Rises Into Place’ (here, you would expect the word ‘Falls’ to be there, instead of ‘Rises’) or ‘A Gesture Too Tired Not to Speak’ (the additional word ‘Not’ takes us by surprise). Four of her poems are headed up with quotations from the thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi which work well with the texts that follow. It is clear from this collection that Akus lives and breathes poetry right down to the naming of her two daughters.
The prose poem that opens the collection, and also bears its title, is neither about helicopters nor rain. Instead it is about a small child, the poet’s youngest daughter, who is plucking petals off clover and becoming totally absorbed in her own world of discovery. After a while, she becomes enchanted by winged seeds that spin through the air as they fall like rain all around her. These seeds are called helicopter seeds because they spin like propellers when they fall through the air. The poem is an exercise in close observation as Akus takes us back to that time when the smallest things in the world were to us a source of wonderment. In the poem, her daughter is ‘stretching her arms out as if to welcome something back. Something we at some point lost? Something, small as hope in the helicopter rain’. In it, Akus recaptures for us something of the magic of childhood.
This sense of awe is continued in the prose poem ‘The Simple Way of Her’ which is dedicated to her daughter Andaluzja Akhmatova. Here, ‘she is wearing a new dress and, as with all her new dresses she is testing the twirl. A pirouette. And then another. And another… sends her spinning into her own realms of things beautiful. And this is the way of her.’ Wonderment is tinged with anxiety on the part of the mother when she writes ‘but for now I try not to think about how she will stop spinning and how she will eventually walk forward and face what we all must face.’ It is the inevitability of growing up, of losing that awe, that childlike innocence when ‘ugliness will begin to seep in’.
In the companion piece, ‘My Realistic Eye’, Akus tries to capture the scene in a drawing but realises very quickly that it is impossible to pin such moments down:
I see in her how everything is
transitory, a momentary blessing
that will change if you look away.
And so my realistic eye
puts down the pencil or charcoal
and just watches her,
in a way I could never keep.
In ‘Autism on the Earth’s Delicate Carpet’ dedicated to her other daughter, Amara Rumi, Akus writes sensitively about her autistic child’s ‘world of small spaces / her feelings of safeness’. At night:
She turns on her music
And we say our I Love You’s,
It’s always, Can you lay with me?
And then I just listen to her,
Sometimes still chatting away,
Or, just breathing.
In her prose poem ‘The Strands That Keep Me Together’, dedicated to her son Gabriel, Akus can’t help remembering ‘His quiet voice in him when I picked him up from grade school and asked about his day. How I’d have to roll the windows up and turn the radio down to hear what was in him’. Even though he is now eighteen, Akus still keeps those memories within her. They are details that only poetry has the means to convey. No photograph could say as much.
Elsewhere, other poems in this collection speak openly about relationships, forgiveness and healing. At the same time, they reveal a reluctant acceptance that all things in our world are broken (‘a glass bottle with a chipped lip’… ‘an old wooden earring box…its hinges nearly prised off from over use’). There is also a growing awareness of our mortality. In ‘How Nothing Ever Rises Into Place’ Akus writes movingly of the tragedy of a young girl who takes her own life by jumping from an overpass after receiving a punishment for a misdeed.
Four of the poems in this collection contain the words ‘something,’ ‘somewhere,’ and ‘someday’ in their titles and these words, along with ‘somehow’, often show up in the texts that follow. The slight imprecision that these words convey helps to contribute to the overall elusiveness of her work and enables the reader to garner a range of thoughts about its interpretation. This is one of her strengths as a writer. The short poem, ‘Where Something Was Once Made’ is a case in point and one that I will end with since it is short enough to be quoted in full. There is so much more I would love to know about this poem which never ceases to intrigue on repeated readings:
In a small town where everything
but the people come and go
how they leaned in to one another
was all that mattered
in the abandoned archway
at the factory of shadows.