Dreams of Movement by Miriam Hall, Finishing Line Press, 2010. $10
Reviewed by Russell Gardner, Jr.
These twenty-seven poems by a woman in her thirties explore many topics, each poem independent of the others. Yet a number focus on womanhood and its vicissitudes. She leads off with hard-hitting tale of rape-pregnancy with lost life opportunities and the lessons learned by a young woman drunk at 2:15 a.m. (“She doesn’t go to bars, anymore”). Hall shows her artistry in how the poem quite repeatedly (and painfully) deploys “hit” in its multiple meanings (“hitting on her,” “missing/ her cervix, hitting her hard,” “her rug-rat son of rape…was a hit/ with her mama, who had smacked her knees/ when I even said the word abortion…”
Its final five lines sum up the lament of pain and self-accusing regrets:
But now she can’t even look at her knees
without being angry at them for missing
the chance to stay inside her skirt, to not be hit,
to stay 15, to knee
him, to not be raped, to still be a Miss.
Note that the last hit quote used first person, the “I” word, but Hall in the poem otherwise uses third person. The reviewer wonders: mistake or deliberate? I conclude deliberate—an implicit quote in the language of a not-well educated narrator whose straight-forwardness comes through the story. Still, my curiosity doesn’t feel settled on that either.
One of the interesting issues for poets who tell such stories hinges on the extent to which they tell their own direct story versus the stories of characters, memoir versus fiction to use the terms of prose (it feels that Anne Sexton tells her own life, for instance). I feel sure that the hit-on-young-mom is not Miriam Hall’s autobiography. (Full disclosure, I know something of Miriam Hall’s life as I participated in a “contemplative writing” series of evenings that she orchestrated and taught in a Buddhist temple on Madison’s east side; moreover, for a few years I rented a studio midway between the several block distance from her place of work to her home so would we would periodically see and converse, and otherwise interacted socially on occasion). One prose poem near the end of this collection, entitled “Miriam,” feels more autobiographically based and wittily tells how her name misleads in being, for instance, often a name of Jewish people, although Miriam Hall does not stem from that heritage. The poem nicely ends with “In countries with tongues I cannot jargon, they take in “Miriam” like marjoram and don’t find me bitter at all.” Still, I know the likely truth of what another poet once said, “poets always lie when they use first person singular. You can’t rely on that pronoun.”
Other features of womanhood here include menstruation, a tomboy-hood history, a poem entitled “Women in an Alley,” and love including frustrated love and frozen love—as in “Portrait of Winter Love in Wisconsin” that includes the following lines I find quite wonderful:
I am frozen when I love you.
I am redefining the phrase “frigid woman” here.
We’re talking deer in headlights frozen
my cat when she’s spied a mouse frozen
She talks of the writer’s craft, a writer’s nightmare and of writer’s block, each of these poems clever in use of metaphor to get her point to the reader. “My Writer’s Blockade” deals with “Poetry’s” striking on the front yard, and other hilarious images; she ends with
Out of embarrassment or exhaustion, I close
my eyes, finally letting go of the temptation
to resist Poetry’s resistance. As I fall to sleep
I find her, sheepish and spooned
in bed next to me.
I’m lately besotted with “learning poetry by heart,” having absorbed some of the lessons from Kim Rosen’s Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, Hay House, 2009 www.hayhouse.com. This means saying to myself the lines of selected poems over and again, putting them in large print next to the bathroom mirror, so as to read without fogged glasses when toweling from the shower, getting them right so that waiting in grocery lines or driving takes on new meaning when I find that I can actually remember and say to myself poems by Auden, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Anne Sexton, Robert Frost. In reading this book, I wonder whether some of these poems will take on similar depth in my mind. It’s a high bar, but some feel like candidates at the moment: the quoted “Portraits of Frozen Love in Wisconsin” and the one that enlists associations to Gerald Manley Hopkins entitled, “Dawn Day Dusk and Night.” The decision lies in the future, not just yet, so check with me in a year or two. Perhaps remind me then that I should re-examine this book.
Russell Gardner, Jr. grew up on a central WI farm, lived in many states as an adult, and is back in Wisconsin. Writing poetry (and prose) since college, he also does mixed media visual art and helped originate and then coordinate the Epidemic Peace Imagery project featured in Free Verse #99/100.