Kyle Laws, Wildwood, (Lummox Press, 2014), 89pp, ISBN 9781929878734
Reviewed by Conrad Geller
[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]
Wildwood is a small town on Cape May, a minor appendage that dangles from the southern end of New Jersey, yearning toward Delaware. Why it is also the title of this collection of poems is something of a mystery. True, in an early poem, ‘The Myth of Men and Women’, the author explains her choice of title, and it is also the title of the last (maybe best) poem of the book, with a lucid evocation of life in that beachfront community:
I want the reach of blue shell crabs
over the rim of a dented pot
as they are dropped into boiling water.
I want butter dripping down my chin
as I break open the shell.
But that same poem projects as many images of a Philadelphia childhood:
I want tulips in North Philadelphia
and the rhythm of the El
as it holds me between freeze-frames
of lovers in windows.
In fact, Kyle Laws provides in her poems, besides these two places, settings in New Orleans and a whole section about the Colorado/New Mexico Southwest as well. All are vividly evoked, in mood as well as sensory detail. Perhaps the most powerful are those in the second section of this book, ‘Pueblo’.
The sky was the blue of a child’s crayon drawing,
the clouds spider dreams.
Huajatolla Peaks were a fifth grade diorama
of mountains in Central America.
The scrub oak was 70’s shag carpeting
in orange, red and brown.
(‘How Do I Tell You About the September Day’)
The ‘Pueblo’ section seems to hold the most intense, as well as the most descriptive, poems in the collection. Many of these poems move between external and internal experience, as in ‘Bottom of My Voice’, where rain outside and passion inside become a confounded whole:
all the rain leaking down,
sometimes soft like your love,
changing like the cells of our
bodies exploding then forming
into something new,
creating & recreating,
the fall of rain intermittent,
bursts of thunder,
the sky opening up around us
Sensual description is an outstanding feature of all the poems here. ‘St. Augustine, 1971’, for example, uses touch and smell as principal vehicles of sense:
[…] how the grits stuck to the roof of my mouth
like the cheese from Mack’s Pizza
on the Wildwood boardwalk,
only the grits didn’t burn;
they were cool like the early morning breeze,
a faint smell of fish in the air.
In this poem, place is as effortlessly melded as viewpoint, flashing from Florida to Cape May, then suddenly to central New Jersey to exhilarating, if slightly confusing, effect.
Much of Laws’ work seems to be autobiographical: the poet’s bastard of a father, her disintegrating family, her travels, her loves, her struggles with identity and direction. Her private progress is anchored to hints of the mid-century zeitgeist, with references to the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, the film Psycho, a Leonard Cohen poem, and the philosophy of the supposed Yaqui shaman, Carlos Castaneda. In this sense, Wildwood is as much a revelation of period as it is of person.
The father needs a bit more exposition, because he is somehow the key to the poet’s emotional base. He works in a factory that makes ball bearings, has deserted his family in the midst of a financial crisis, and yet he seems to be remembered with a glow, almost a yearning that I suppose is reserved for many fathers. ‘St. Augustine’ begins
April of the year I graduated high school,
Father and I were on our way to Ft. Lauderdale.
and goes on to produce the sensory fireworks described above.
Another poem, ‘199 Steps to the Top of the Lighthouse’, describes the destruction of a pier during a storm:
The bay would smash hard
against what remained;
and as it retreated,
drew in its breath,
and a few lines later:
It was like Father
who took all things to bed,
wrapped them up in his arms,
swept them away.
But it is, of course, sound and form more than substance or style that distinguish poetry from other uses of language, and in this regard Laws has produced some beautiful work. One of her devices is artful repetition, such as the four-time iteration of “a child is born” in ‘It is 1953’. More telling is the almost liturgical repetition of “After an afternoon” to begin each of the three stanzas in ‘Pinon Rain’.
Another noticeable characteristic of Laws’s work here is the use of listings, a familiar imagination starter in poetry workshops, but here a powerful descriptive tool. ‘White, Shaggy Cattle’, for example, presents a panorama of cows, a dog, a herder who looks like a bullfighter, snow, “petroglyph-carved cliffs,” and, finally, antelope and deer. Yet it all makes sense, the seemingly disparate details becoming part of two connected but contrasting pictures.
Perhaps the most successful use of listings comes in ‘Debris’, which starts as little more than an inventory of pickings from a beach:
an unbroken tiny pink pearl shell,
a small quilled seagull feather,
a blue clawed crab’s pincher,
and the back of its coral rimmed shell.
It then swells to a meaningful self-reflection:
I could no more untangle
the fishing line
from the coil of colored rope
than I could untangle myself
from a foghorn’s wail at sunset,
Among all the places, images, and narratives in this book, it becomes apparent that Law’s poetry is largely emotion recollected, not in tranquility, but in anguish, or at least regret. Her haunted childhood, as well as her travels and her discoveries, presents to the reader a poet with deep and troubled feelings, expressed in lucid imagery and careful language.
The poetry isn’t all bitter coffee from Smitty’s Bar, however. There is one conventionally romantic, even sentimental, poem, ‘Ordelia Met John at the Carousel’, that tells of a meeting of lovers-to-be in a scene almost reminiscent of a June Allyson film. John lifts up Ordelia:
lifting her up onto a horse,
mane braided with rhinestones,
her legs falling down softly side saddle,
the music low then rising with
horses above the din of voices
from the roller coaster,
cotton candy pink, and slice
of Jersey tomatoes on rare hamburgers
scenting their first meeting.
This is a vision of ordinary love, even if it’s for someone else.