Book Review: A BLISTER OF STARS by Jason Irwin

317rYWc5OOL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_ A Blister of Stars
by Jason Irwin
Low Ghost Press, 2016
$8.00

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

Winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Award for Watering the Dead (Pavement Saw Press, 2008) and author of the chapbooks Where You Are (Night Ballet Press, 2014) and Some Days It’s a Love Story (Slipstream Press, 2005), Jason Irwin’s most recent collection, A Blister of Stars, delights with glimpses of beauty rooted in experiences of illness and survival.

In a hospital room, the ostomy bag is “a translucent pouch / that shimmered like a jellyfish / in the overhead light.” A room where, pages later, the speaker wakes from surgery, “my mouth a desert; / my eyes two stones / sunk in my skull— / some small part of me had died; some small part was reborn.” A stark hospital room transforms into the edges of a dreamscape, where nightmares are pitted against fear. In “Hospital Room,” the speaker asks:

Who am I in this night, soaked with fever?
Whose eyes watch this shadow play
of animals; the skulls of little children
dancing in the green-haloed light?

At times, the grinding needed to stay alive strips the speaker’s identity away. Nightmares and the wildness of nature conjoin at the blurred edges of our speaker’s reality. “I am swallowed by the light / that hangs above me / like giant insect eyes.” The speaker’s struggle and endurance in sickness stretches to contain the animal instinct to survive.

Irwin ensures that his readers are conscious of how closely we live our days alongside the possibility of death and how quickly time slips away from our grasp. In the collection’s opening poem, “Ouija Board,” our speaker asks when and how he will die. “After that I waited, counting down the days and weeks. The years.” What starts off as pretend-play, his cousin asking the “usual questions” about “boys and marriage” and “toys under the Christmas tree,” soon lights on more sinister questions about death:

Sometimes
I lay on the couch with a towel over my face
and instructed my cousin to pretend it was my funeral.

It would be on a Tuesday.
Would it hurt? Would there be blood?

The book pivots around these questions, the speaker sometimes falling into despair, and at other times, wonder, but always with a tender vulnerability. In “Reborn,” the toll of sickness on the body is compared to a ritual that marks the passage of time as growth, in inches. “I can mark time by the surgeries; / the way my grandmother / marked my growth / with pencil slashes / on her kitchen door frame.” Here, we find an aching for normalcy and celebration in the everyday, for what Irwin describes as “making our way one step at a time.”

In this collection, time passes quickly and our speaker ages at what feels like a brisk pace. A new awareness of our human fragility and a deepened appreciation of our day-to-day existence arise when the nights spent in hospital rooms end. Towards the close of the book, the strongest impression we are left with, however, is a sense of waiting—still—to begin living. In “The Place You Once Belonged,” this hesitation is evident:

the morning aromas of burnt
toast, coffee, cigarettes,
and the view from the living-
room window, where you watched
the seasons, waiting for your life to begin.

Even in his improved health, the speaker seems to hold back, disengaged from the outside world’s intense experience of living. In his careful eye for moments of beauty and risk, we can sense his yearning for a more intrepid existence. “Outside a boy is standing in the street jumping up and down / on each crack in the pavement, fearless.” We begin to wonder if our speaker will also challenge the stories he is told about death.

A Blister of Stars begs the reader to do more than survive, to hold onto any sliver of innocence still present in our lives, and to mine our day-to-day existence for moments of fearlessness and wonder. In a poem titled “One Day,” he warns:

One day we’ll be gone from this earth,
our bodies eaten by the very ground
we tread, turned over, shovelful by shovelful,
but until then we’ll continue to search
for that one moment in our lives
when we can say with confidence: “I am. I am.”

Like the severed bird’s head our speaker finds and carries in his hand in “The House Sparrow,” Irwin asks us to scoop up moments “with no thought of time” and carry them “like a coin, or talisman,” reminding us that we, too, can be as fearless as the boy jumping on every crack in our street until the moment arrives where we are able to finally say “There’s nothing more I want or need.”


 

Book Review: THE CANOPY by Patricia Clark

clarkcanopy The Canopy
by Patricia Clark
Terrapin Books, 2017
$16.00

Reviewed by Marie Orttenburger 

I often found myself without breath while reading Patricia Clark’s new collection of poetry, The Canopy.

The poems quietly knocked the wind out of me.

The collection dwells in loss and the ways death can take things from us, both slowly and all at once. It characterizes the incremental erosion of memory, the whiplash of unexpected loss and what enduring both feels like.

The poems in The Canopy are incisive, and Clark’s calm delivery is stealthy. It deals blows to the gut not unlike the kind felt in grief. The speaker endures them as unflinchingly as Clark delivers them, “letting the knife settle where it will, blade nestled between a rib and a rib.”

Clark possesses a talent for capturing stillness–accessing revelations through meditations on nature. The speaker walks through forested landscapes, alive with movement and wildlife. The natural environments are usually introduced as a refuge but inevitably reflect the reality of death. Such is the way of grief, who visits whether or not you greet her at the threshold.

Still, there is solace to be found in nature’s frank disposition. The poem “Double Vision” begins “Nine long years ago I had a mother . . . I walked in rain, in sun, not thinking of her then not knowing as I do now in bones, fiber, skin, what a body takes, then leaves.” It ends with the sight of a red fox, mid-stride, “a live gray thing struggling from its mouth to get away.” Death pangs in an emotional context–the speaker’s anniversary of becoming orphaned, her reflection on life before that day. But in nature, death is truth: quotidian and essential. We are not so separate from nature.

The poem from which the collection gets its title compares life’s brevity to the window in which forest wildflowers grow and bloom in spring, before the trees’ canopy closes above them. The canopy is the end for the spring ephemerals, but the forest will continue to grow, “up and up / to white oak, American beech.”

While death and grief are certainly central focuses in this collection, it has other gifts to offer. Clark’s poetry is also playful and joyous. As it mourns loss, it celebrates steadfast love. In “This is for the Snow Drifting Down,” Clark deftly uses language to float the reader, like a snowflake on the wind, through a harsh winter scene, landing safely into a bed with “S”:  “Twining vines, that’s what we are, holding on like English ivy, this is for that fasthold, tentacle, grip.”

For all the pain in The Canopy, the poems are a delight to read. Clark is truly a painter of words, efficiently dropping the reader in a scene and a feeling with a turn of phrase.