Book Review

St. Cecilia’s Daze by Katrin Talbot, Parallel Press, 2010. $10

Reviewed by Bobbi Altreuter

My initial reaction to the poems in St. Cecilia’s Daze was that they were not accessible to a general audience.  After reading a few, I was convinced that I would need to look up musical terms before venturing into each poem.  No way would someone want to pick up this book and read these poems for fun.

I let a month go by before trying again.  What I discovered is that the poems are not only accessible but profoundly universal.  The writer has divided the book into four very clear sections.  The pages that divide and announce each section prepare the reader for the subject matter and tone of the poems in that section with a brief definition or comment. Despite the differences, the poems obviously belong together due to the common themes of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary and listening to and appreciating the music of our everyday lives.

Section one begins with a definition of recitative, “a musical style that brushes aside rhythm and metre in favour of a more declamatory delivery of a narrative” (9).  The poems in this section are free verse explorations of how music and poetry permeate every facet of our lives, even the seemingly ordinary and mundane.  “Every six months” and “Wondering” show this theme the best.  In “Every six months” the speaker shares the experience of needing to pull over while driving to more fully embrace the experience of listening to music.  The speaker questions “if all is as profound as I see it” and if every sunrise and sunset and little thing should be given the same consideration as life’s major events in “Wondering.” 

“Morning Cantata, Umbrete, Spain,” shows how we are living in a “country of song.”  The speaker is lying next to someone very young who is still asleep and describes the sounds around them.  Some sounds may not be appreciated at the moment, such as the “radiator crashing in two bars early, / like a jittery viola section,” but every sound has a musical quality and is worthy of description.

Section two, “Scherzo” (meaning joke), continues the themes already well established in section one while adding some humor and contemplating growing older.  I thought of how Emily Dickinson’s work mixes the grandiose with the mundane when I read “Ear Strudel.”  In this poem, the speaker talks about the “crescendoing and decrescendoing / of planes/ buzzing the Coast” while a dog barks and the speaker eats stale m-n-m’s.  “Life at Measure Forty-four” shows the poet’s talent for using music to contemplate the meaning of life.  She asks:

Would one start on the highest ivory
and begin a descent to define a life,
accruing a depth of wisdom
creep up towards an expected enlightened state
that sometimes accompanies longevity?

She’s “in no hurry to / modulate,” meaning she’s content to play the keys in the middle of the keyboard, her middle age.  Put simply, this section tackles profound ideas in a light-hearted way.

The universal themes of hearing music everywhere and acknowledging all parts of life continue through a look at the darker not as fun parts of life in section three, “Modulation to Relative Minor.”  The speaker mourns a child who lived only a day in “Preferring the b., Encountering the --.”  A childhood song is part of a memory for the speaker in “With a comforting snap.” In “Green, Red” and “from Iowa Poems” the victims of cruel deaths are animals.  In “We’ve all Known” the speaker talks about the bleakness of a world without song.  Section three concludes with hope, however, in “Saving Heart.”    

In the final section, “Standard Rep,” the poems talk about simultaneously feeling connected to something greater than ourselves and feeling disconnected from everything.  Many of Talbot’s poems talk about music or musical instruments directly.  However, “In the Hall” is an excellent example of how she often uses word choice and line breaks to create music.  Three young students wait while others enjoy prayer in school.  They are “ostracized by the blurred / chanting / beating against / a door of exclusion.” At some point in life, most people have felt on the wrong side of the door, physically and / or metaphorically.  “What is America?” shows another story of disconnection when the speaker describes being new to America during the turbulence of the 1960s.  The poet uses short, effective lines to show the feelings of discontent and disconnect.  In contrast, some of the final poems in the chapbook show how we are connected and how music is a part of that connection.  For example, in “Stoplight Number 4, 75th Time” the speaker talks about a person following the same routine and listening to the same songs each day and then being pulled away from that familiar routine due to the influence of another person.  The final poem, “I owned it,” talks about the importance of every moment and how everyone has an opportunity to influence any given moment. 

Katrin Talbot successfully takes her readers on a journey through light-hearted and serious aspects of life.  She varies her poems from talking about music directly to choosing her words and line breaks to give the poem a musical quality.  Throughout the entire experience, readers can see glimpses of their own and others’ lives.  

Bobbi Altreuter has a Bachelor of Arts in English from UW-Stevens Point, works as an Administrative Assistant at Figi's in Marshfield, and lives in Auburndale.