Book Review

Counting on Birds by Sandy Stark, Fireweed Press, P.O. Box 482, Madison, WI 53701. $12.

Reviewed by Richard Swanson

What a joy to encounter a first book by a "sleeper talent," someone you've heard at local readings and always expected had a trove of good poems in a drawer back home. Then that poet’s book arrives, and it's even better than you hoped for.

Enter Sandy Stark. Her Counting on Birds starts with ten pieces of ornithological lore. For birder readers there are lovely works about cranes, owls, and swans but also a tongue in cheek mini-treatise about one off-ignored species, technically called a Rock Dove:

How Pigeons Think 

With their toes.
What they can get a grip on,
they trust.
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

They don't think with their heads.
Everyone knows the size
of a pigeon brain.
They think with their feet instead.

Part of this book's appeal is its geographic sweep, as Counting on Birds effortlessly moves us around the globe, with a number of Texas poems especially evocative. Anchoring all this travel are some family portraits, Kodak moments of Stark’s personal history. "Bob Sits Up," one example, could be a model of how simple facts can grab poetic attention.  In it the dying main character

asks for a smoke.
a shot of bourbon,
nibbles at biscuits in bed.

The oxygen turned off,
the family gathers, jokes
uneasily that only yesterday
he seemed to draw
his very last breath.

Even though the Audubon Society didn't underwrite this book, a sophisticated feminist press might have, especially some poems at the end, about women’s perceptions of aging: "The Older Women's New Locker Room" and "At 63 I Can't Dress Myself." One of my favorites in this group is a piece in which Stark details her defiance of conventional expectations.

Learning to Fish 

 . . . I fish for words to tell the mother
who wishes I'd married the biggest fish
in the sea that she did all right
getting me in this boat:
I know how to watch things;
I know how to find them;
I can cut my losses when I have to,
and I don't think a good fish story
is the same thing as a lie.

This has not only superb irony and terrific pacing; it also does what many striking poems do—revitalize clichéd language. 

Stark has also included in the book some ekphrastic works, based on the Human Body Exhibit that toured a number of years ago. These aren't as successful, in part I suspect because sculptural objects are very difficult to describe. At any rate Stark follows these with some powerfully moving meditations on the death of her long-time partner.

In one poignant work she describes looking for some heavenly sign indicating Phoebe’s continuing spiritual presence in her life.

I’ve waited patiently for something,
a sensation, a sign, any kind of signal
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
to tell me you know I’m still here

But then the poem does an insightful,180 reversal (and Stark is a master at “turning the poem”):

Now I’m thinking I got it all wrong.
Instead of looking for breath-stopping
clues I should have been sending
you messages all along. Look, the cats
are fine; the garden is in; I go to work;

I see my friends. Maybe you really need
to know these things...

Finally, Counting on Birds has what might be called a signature poem (think Frost and “Stopping by Woods”), a work so uniquely conceived and executed that readers who stumble across it in print instantly connect it with its author. This one is about a mechanical tape measure, a small thing women frequently carry, for a variety of purposes. “Taking the Measure of Things” is too long to quote in full, but the opening lines will give some idea of how easily Stark moves ideas along in her craft.

The Stanley No. 346 measuring tape
fits in my pocket, so I carry it
to the furniture store to check out
a footstool for the rocking chair,
write down the height and width
of the bookcase I want some day.
The Stanley is handy, out in a flash,
makes me look serious.

The poem’s last lines have charming finality, even though Stark takes a hyperbolic leap in them.

... Stanley and I have bonded:
he likes the attention; I need the dimensions.
I really don’t have to do the math.

Terrific stuff, this work by Sandy Stark, a bit too long in coming maybe, but who’s quibbling about the delay, given the quality of the result?

Richard Swanson lives in Madison, Wisconsin where he reads, gardens, and writes. His previous volume was Men in the Nude in Socks (Fireweed, 2006). His latest book is Not Quite Eden (Fireweed Press).