These Things I Will Take with Me by Carmen Germain. Cincinnati, OH: Cherry Grove Collections, 2008. $18
Reviewed by Lisa Vihos
Carmen Germain’s poems in her 2008 collection, These Things I Will Take With Me (Cherry Grove Collections, 2008), speak of loss and longing, and of life’s ongoing miscommunications, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities. She is a master at summing things up neatly and succinctly. In the poem “Heart”:
I married my first husband
because I thought he had money,
and every night I curved over
his body, my eyes on the pulse
in his neck, waiting for him
to die and open the door.
A sense of the outdoors pervades the poems; a sense of farmland, berry brambles, of the woods, and of the creatures that live and die in the open air. “April, Seattle to Missoula” begins with a deer stepping into the headlights of the car in which the speaker is riding, and then unfolds into a childhood memory of seeing a man and woman dead in a car soon after a run-in with a deer:
How we came first on the wreck
and I saw the man, then the woman.
As though they had pulled off the road
for talk, his arm slung out the window.
His head thrown back as though
the woman had said something hilarious
as she stared out the shattered windshield.
And the velvet buck broken in the ditch?
He listened carefully too, his brown
eyes, like hers, slowly emptying.
The collection is divided into three sections, the first of which, “Living Room Earth,” appeared as a chapbook in its own right (Pathways Press 2002). In this section, there are poems about husbands and wives who do not “get” one another, a farm mother who milks cows and loses a baby, why women should not wear their hair long past age 30, and other melancholy meditations on the pervading beauty and sadness inherent in all living things, destined as they are to die by virtue of being born.
The second section is also the title of the entire collection, “These Things I Will Take With Me.” Here, there are memories, snippets, collected bits and pieces that turn into rich veins of story. Again and again, Germain can spin out a whole yarn in very few words. Take for example the poem, “Daily Bread”:
Waiting in line at the supermarket,
I think of a student’s spell-checked paper.
My dad gets up at 3:00
in the mourning and heads for Seattle
where he works for Safeway
in their whorehouse.
Often, Germain gives us a protagonist in the poem who is a loner. In one, a man called Ol’ Snags rides the bus daily to go fishing; in another, a man who grew up unloved and is learning to read late in life, once killed a monkey in a fit of rage; or the poet herself, who has come alone to a U-pick strawberry farm and watches from the sidelines while a family interacts joyfully and snaps photos of their strawberry take until it begins to rain:
When it begins to rain hard,
the family scatters.
The farmer walks back
from his roadside fruit stand,
his wife’s wide canvas hat.
Here, he says, This will keep you dry.
The last section is called "Pieta" and includes several poems situated in Italy. A sub-group within these are poems written in “homophonic translation” in which the writer takes a poem written in a foreign language and without using a dictionary, “translates” the poem into English words that are sonic equivalents for what is on the page. This is a method described by Charles Bernstein, the results of which “can be surprisingly revealing of unconscious aesthetic and personal proclivities.” Germain puts this method to very good use and you would not even know that the poems were written in this manner without reading the end notes.
Carmen Germain’s poems are neat, and rather tightly-wound, and thus frequently pack quite a zing by the last line. They point up the foibles of being human, and they do it in a way that is more like a mirror than a baseball bat. There is no judgment, only reflection. Read this book. I am sure you will find yourself some place in it.
Lisa Vihos worked for twenty years as an art museum educator and is now the Director of Alumni Relations at Lakeland College. Her poems have appeared previously in Verse Wisconsin, and in Free Verse, Lakefire, Wisconsin People and Ideas, Seems,and Big Muddy. She resides in Sheboygan and maintains a weekly blog, http://www.lisapoemoftheweek.blogspot.com/.