Comment on this
by Mary Jo Balistreri
57 poems, 94 pages
Publisher: FutureCycle Press
Library of Congress Control Number: 2018952393
To Order: www.futurecycle.org or Amazon
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
Until spending many golden moments with Mary Jo Balistreri's latest collection, I
confess ignorance in the art of being "still." The poet has taken me to school using her
title word as an adjective, "the still body of the young man," as a noun, "the still of the
night" and as an adverb, "he still lives with his mother." This rather forensic analysis of
the term doesn't begin to touch the heightened emotions felt as I engaged these superb
I have this habit of pre-reading poetry books in the contents section looking for
interesting titles; I found these: "You've Never Seen Blue Like This," "Woman Wrapped
in Orange," "Skipping Stones in Ireland," "Tomorrow You Go Up In Smoke," "How to
Deal with the Dead," and "Renoir Paints My Husband and Me at Breakfast in Cagnes-
Sur-Mer," to name but a few. This exercise in itself was a treat.
While the collection is divided into five sections, the poet does not hue rigidly to a
specific category of experience within the sections. She is free and effervescent
throughout. Her first poem,I Say Yes, set in tropical Florida, delights in the "sheen of
light/swallowing sailboats in its maw.// While at a loss to explain the joy that rises
within her, she says 'Yes, Yes to everything.'" She extracts hope even in the midst of
hurt and disappointment in, Dear Vincent, inspired by the incomparable Van Gogh,
You give hope by showing anguish
behind the surface; even your demons
were made to serve art.
I find this redemptive tendency in other poems: Woman Wrapped in Orange, responds to
the death of a beloved nephew with an emphasis on the color orange. In Maybe, though at
times, the fabric of life unravels, there is,
a blank page
the white solitude needed
to clear one's mind
and imagine a new stitch
Balistreri seldom "tells" or "imposes" definite answers in her poetry. I like this quality.
What I need, rather than more telling, is the presentation of options, the drawing close
emotionally, suggesting through images and metaphors, "I'm with you in this, I've been
there too." There is empathy in the poet's lines indicating that suffering has played a big
role in her life, but has not defeated her. Refusing to wallow in self-pity, Balistreri views
life as in this example from Rebooting,
Strange how as time collapses, it expands.
Without a ticking clock, the click of a computer,
iphone, and iPad, time proves seamless.
Standing, my face lifted to the cold,
breath creates a soft mist like wisps of smoke.
The air smells green.
It has been noted that in order to write excellent poetry, one must possess, desire,
discipline and talent. To these three I add one other: the ability to be "still" and think.
Small details, things most of us look past as irrelevant, become enchanting poems,
the sawgrass ripening
and cattail wands
an eagle's keen over mangroves
and spoonbills mining mudflats
become reasons for Balistreri to
Praise this day that beckons
scoops me into its net
this spacious silence
this joy that is morning
Balistreri's mindfulness skills touch me where I live. As a lover of books and libraries,
The Bookmobile spoke to me as the poet describes, a lady wearing "wire-rimmed glasses,
black hair swept high, standing in a crisp white blouse." This unnamed lady changed the
poet's life by making the bookmobile a holy place to be.
The poems in Still are marked by Balistreri's near genius use of strong verbs and nouns.
In Winter Sunset, the sun's "syzygy" with the moon and earth cause onlookers to lower
their voices. Later in the poem "when ocean swallows sun, a man hammers a brass
gong." The sunset (in Naples, FL) isn’t complete until "thousands of sea crows
transform the sky to feathers of peach-pink-orchid."
If I were to choose one theme that defines Still, that theme would be love. In nature,
the poet discovers love, in human suffering the poet inhabits redeeming love, when
life changes as it inevitably does, she doesn't complain, but in love finds a "white
linen tablecloth/to cover the brittle stubble of wheat."
The collection draws to a gentle closure with the poem What We Didn't Lose. If you
wonder why Jo Balistreri's poetry has won nine Pushcart nominations as well as
numerous high-profile awards, a clue is contained in these lines,
Though the physical limits of our lives have been redrawn,
air wraps us in light. I walk to his side, happy
for respite in uncertainty.
Draping my arms around him, he reaches
for my hands.
Would that this reviewer learn the art of being Still.