Cherma by Jacqueline West. Madison, WI: Parallel Press 2010.
Reviewed by Judy Swann
Jacqueline West’s Cherma, a collection of 22 poems, is a Parallel Press Chapbook, with copyright held by the University of Wisconsin. Its front matter contains the following “Historical Note”:
Cherma takes inspiration from the names, lives, and family stories of a small group of Bohemian immigrants that settled in western Wisconsin’s Pierce County in the late 1800s. Named after the village of Dolní Cermná in the modern-day Czech Republic, Cherma parish included several interrelated farming families, a general store, a post office, a nearby school, a cemetery, and a Catholic church. The store was dismantled many decades ago; the school followed. The last mass was said in Cherma in 1987, and the church burned to the ground shortly thereafter… (4)
The collection is structured like the Spoon River Anthology, and most poems are titled with the musical Slavic names of Midwestern immigrants: the Zmoleks, the Duseks, Marek, Jansa, Yanys. This fragment from the opening piece, “Yanys,” (9) clearly shows that West can tell a story:
In that first letter she could not write
of the loneliness that ate this land,
the spreads of dense and hungry woods
that swallowed cries from neighbor to neighbor,
the places where there was no road at all,
of the jewelers and teachers and newspapermen
now splitting their skin against an axe handle.
Her gift is real. “Yanys” continues:
She would say that at last they had plenty to eat,
that the land was cheap
and the china unbroken
and outside the tent where they slept on the dirt
clumps of violets grew wild in the ruts.
In poem after poem, West’s palette is true to the picture she’s painting, whether a monochrome, like “Matzek” (p. 12):
He was just cleaning his gun,
Just cleaning his gun in the barn.
he went out to the barn by himself.
They didn’t think anything of it,
He was just cleaning his gun in the barn.
Just cleaning his gun
by himself in the barn
They didn’t think anything of it.
Again and again
until they all believed it.
or a study in contrasts, as in the first couple stanzas of “Dusek,” (p. 24):
Joe had a knack for butchering.
He sold half the farm, bought a shop
in town, with a counter
as white as church gloves.
All the wet mess
was confined to the back
where three hired boys
wielded cleavers, drained veins
She loves the sounds of things, the yum at the end of this stanza for example from the poem “Cherma” (p. 32):
Little Nick picked his kolatchy to flakes,
his pink mouth crimped in a finicky knot
while his sister Mary gobbled a second,
mumbling, My mom doesn’t make these at home.
This poem, “Cherma,” is the poet’s dramatic retelling of the Historical Note. As the last piece in the collection, it is perfectly placed, a culmination of the work of the other poems in the collection. It is good work, work that makes the reader slow down so as to put off coming to the end, what the British call “more-ish.”
Judy Swann’s work has appeared in Lilliput, Danse Macabre, Tongues of the Ocean, and Tilt Poetry Magazine, as well as other print and online venues. Her work at The Waters has been repeatedly honored by the judges at the InterBoard Poetry Competition. She is an Iowan who lives in gorgeous Ithaca, NY.