Poems of Smoke & Ash, Poems of Love

By Zara Raab

The strong poems in Alum, Hall’s third book, are preceded by no fewer than three sets of introductory remarks—–preface, forward, and introduction––by close friends of the poet, who died before the book was published. She was only 52. Clearly, Hall was much loved and her work valued in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and in her small, close-knit community in southeastern Wisconsin, no doubt in part because Hall paid close attention to the poems’ “moment and place.” 

Alum has five sections. The first, “Ashes, Ashes. . .”, contains only the title poem, “Alum,” and a thirteen page poem, “Ashes to Ashes,” a narrative of the historic Lakeview Elementary School fire that occurred in Collinswood, Ohio in March 1908. “Ashes to Ashes” recalls Chris Llewellyn’s moving poem, Fragments from the Fire: the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of March 25, 1911 (Viking 1987), which won the Walt Whitman award in 1987. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is much better known, as American tragedies go. It happened in New York City’s garment district, when more than a hundred and fifty garment workers, most of them young women and girls, were trapped on the upper floors of a factory whose doors were locked, and it became a celebrated cause of the Labor Movement.

Dozens more children, many very young, died three years earlier, almost to the day, in the Lakeview Elementary School Fire of Hall’s “Ashes, Ashes. . .”. As in the Shirtwaist fire, many of the victims were the children of immigrants, fathers who worked the railroads. And as in the Shirtwaist fire, and for that matter the Twin Towers, some escaped the flames by leaping—–inevitably to their deaths—–from upper-story windows.

Hall’s sensibility is quite different from Llewellyn’s whose lyricism is stirred in part by social injustice. Hall, in contrast, cleaves to a sparer line, both more matter-of-fact and more subdued, and the effect renders the tragedy more harrowing. “I learn . . . /That 172 children ages 6 to 15 died there. . . .//[T]he children panicked/falling down those stairs like cut trees,/tumbling down, piling up, suffocating/at the open inner doors, a mere few strides/ from the unobstructed outer doors, children/piling up 6 to 8 bodies deep and unable to move,/to be pulled free before the fire came.” [8,7]

It was a devastating fire. Underlying Hall’s narrative and giving it power is the poet’s early memory of the oft-repeated story of the Collinswood fire, which apparently had a mythic status among Cleveland schoolchildren. As a child, Hall was terrified her school would burst into flames just as the school in nearby Collinswood did a half century earlier.

What was 2nd grade teacher Miss Weiler’s
sensible schoolmarm manner
before the terror of 7-year-olds

. . . .

They found her bones in the ruins
beneath those of her students.[8-9]

Hall’s narratives are plain spoken. Although closely worked and critiqued, her lines seem to stand as they emerged urgently from Hall’s memory and heart. In “Ashes to Ashes,” they lie on the page like broken, charred sticks or bones, as when she lists the names of the dead. She rightly doesn’t attempt to burnish or shape them.     

The second section of Alum, “Stories by the Fire,” continues the incendiary theme, with stories from the African-American, blue-collar world of Hall’s Cleveland childhood. The four-part title poem of the section begins with Coco, a dog Hall has been given for Christmas, killed by a passing car the following summer, “the blood that came from her mouth/such a bright surprise of red. Not much/ but more than enough to remember. . .” [25, “Stories by the Fire” (Coco)]. The desolation of this sudden loss perfectly expresses the loneliness of a childhood marked by an absent father and a mother “very busy in some other room.”

The crow, keenly intelligent and shrewd, becomes this poet’s emblem in the third section, “The Fidelity of Crows,” with some of the strongest, most crafted and moving poems of the book, including “Winter Fruit.” “Seeing Is Believing” is strongly lyrical:

This, too, is the garden, this ice-seared pelt
Of field, ghost-green scrag of winter grass.

As is the diffident blue above; nothing,
really, like a cerulean bowl, but more
an occasion for this late March wind to be
fresh with the limbs of Scotch pines. . . [63]

A fourth section, “Ceremonies,” was written, according to Hall’s friend Sarah Busse in her introduction, “by a process incorporating the Tarot and the I Ching. . . to cast for poems,” a technique Hall apparently used in her earlier book, Mind of Cup. These poems have the oracular tone of one who knows she  stands at the abyss.

Sometimes Hall’s meaning is not clear. On occasion she seems to mean something other than what she says, not through irony but through inexact language or word choice, as when she writes, in “The Fidelity of Crows,” “the loyal crows/. . . remain to supply us with choices/other than the stropping of the wind . .” [51] The presence of crows and stropping wind is palpable, but “supply us with choices” is awkward and muddled. In “Break of Day,” with its wonderful image of day breaking open like a cracked hen’s egg, Hall weakens the effect with “sparks that snuggle under/their tongues” [58], jarring if only because it’s hard to imagine sparks snuggling.

Alum’s final section, “Resignations,” evokes the fire and ash of the opening sections and closes with a moving elegy, Hall’s farewell to her mother as Hall casts her mother’s ashes over the water. When at the last moment a few ashes brush against the poet’s skin, she immerse her hands in the water and marvel’s “how ashes, submerging, shimmer//for an instant like fish new-hatched,/seeking the deep dark as a matter of course.” [102] This poem feels like Hall’s farewell to the world, as well, and it gives an ironic twist to the book’s title, for alum is a substance used to remove impurities from water.

     [W]e. . . worked your poem about your mother’s ashes

These are the very ashes of Hall’s mother, this the very elegy Hall wrote for her mother that Jeanie Tomasko refers to in her book, Sharp as Want. Poets write elegies for other, beloved poets. Auden famously grieved for Yeats:

Earth, receive an honored guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

               ["In Memory of W.B. Yeats"]


Tomasko mourns Shelly Hall in Sharp as Want’s opening section, “Wherever There Is Distance,” but apart from chemotherapy and ashes, Tomasko does not attempt to embody Hall in these poems. (In fact, a reader not familiar with Hall’s or Tomasko’s circle would not know Tomasko was writing about Hall until she reached the end notes.)

Perhaps this was a wise decision, given that Tomasko’s poems are not so much elegies as poems about grief as a state of mind and rite of passage. The poems bespeak not only Tomasko’s grief, and that of others, as in “Among the Sorrowful Mysteries”[44], where Tomasko’s work as a home health nurse seems to inform her approach. The title of the first section comes from a quotation by John O’Donohue, “Wherever there is distance there is longing.”

For Tomasko, “longing is a voice one must heed;/listen, how it tells of what one cannot see.” [34] She writes of “stillness in this world/and small places for birds/to live out their lives.” [7] The poems are meditations on grief, loss, remembrance and longing. Many have a haiku quality without being haiku. William Stafford’s simple poems are also an influence here (and one poem is “after William Stafford”).

The poet lies awake at night: “all night/there was no wind to speak of/against our windows.” [9] She wonders, “how does the soul rip away from bone”? [35] The poet’s friend, dying of cancer, misses “nothing––meaning a moment to yourself/without fear that something/somewhere in your body is dividing/ which means multiplying, really.“[9] The poet confesses that she wants to know what it is like to die, “but instead we talked about love poems how you learned to write how you learned your voice . . . [10]

Tomasko reveals a Dickinsonian gift for the posthumous when she writes, “If you had one day/only, and the wind//rode rough/through your one/soft body/. . .” [13]. In an ars poetica, the poet compares the poem to a paper boat carried down to the water, where you, the poet, “set its course, bullet a few flat stones/hard into the silver water, then//watch the wind catches the sail/”[24], lines which echo Dickinson’s famous gun in their original use of “bullet” to describe a child’s game of skipping stones.

We tell ourselves stories our selves want.
We make up all kinds of truths.

. . .

. . .  we are never prepared
for the early snow.[27]

Tomasko is a poet of milder sentiments than Hall, but she shares with Hall some of the same difficulties with word choice and diction. I don’t quite believe her when she writes in “Walking Near a Frozen Lake,” “There is no stillness anywhere/but in death and even then/how would I know//I didn’t even know until now/ my heart was a muscle of water/under ice” [32].

Sharon Auberle’s black and white photographs are sometimes nonrepresentational, sometimes landscapes of tress, lakes, and many birds. (I counted nine species in Tomasko’s poems, including frigates, great blue herons, hermit thrush, mourning dove, wild geese, red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, sparrow, and wild swans.) Despite the impressive wide format of the page, the reproductions are poor, obscuring or blurring the more abstract photographs. As a result, Auberle’s realistic photographs, like her field of snow and dry grass with trees accompanying Tomasko’s “Between you and me,” are often the most effective.

A photograph of trees––burr oaks, judging from the poem on the facing page––opens the second section of the book, “The Case with Desire,” which continues many of the themes of the first section. This photograph of tree limbs reaching to a cloudy sky, while their exposed roots, strangely vulnerable, seem to grasp a rocky shore like talons, is an effective introduction to the lovely poems of this section, like “Ache is Ache,” which ends with

What else can be said
about the want of one body for another?

Ache, that raw and lovely word.

Like rain on stone or
how it must have been before flowers. [49]

In this same cluster of poems, Auberle’s close up shot of whorl-grained driftwood pairs well with Tomasko’s “Therapy Session.”    

At other times, Tomasko’s work becomes more stream of consciousness:

Just watch how want prays you how cold wants you how
you want a cold so cold you break. Watch how you break. Watch how light falls in the morning how everyone
will know how everyone will see. Watch how morning.
Just watch how morning Just watch the wood. Watch the wood. [54]

There’s much to appreciate in “Just Watch,” but a sharp editor would have caught the unfortunate “you want a cold,” which sounds as if the poet is about to offer a box of Kleenex. “The thing in my heart made of lead” [41] is another example of a line that brings up unwanted associations. But then Tomasko redeems herself with lines like these:

throw two smooth stones in to the water,
watch the waves wild for the shore. [63]

The third section, “And It May Be,” love poems written to the poet’s husband, takes its title from E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: “And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.” Some of the love poems have a fresh, wonderful candor: “You ask about the poetry reading and I tell you how the whole time/I watched a man play with his lover’s hair—–/. . .  . //I mean, I know you asked about the reading—–but/I don’t remember anything else. [77] The driving impulse behind Tomasko’s collection remains, however, her strong poems of longing, desire, and grief.

Love and Lust: An Anthology indicates on the title page that the book celebrates “17 years of love & lust poetry at A Room of One’s Own bookstore.” Judging by the poems, this time span, representing almost a generation, has hardly dimmed the ardor of the ten accomplished women poets included here. Edited by Andrea Potos, this delightful anthology opens with Marilyn Annucci’s love poem to a grade school crossing guard, “She sees me, turns away. . . //You’re no one/special, her strut says/Heartbreaker.” [11] “Crossing Guard.”

As a California girl, I looked eagerly to Bridget Brown’s prose poem, “Questions Remain Regarding ‘California Girls,’ and was disappointed by her mostly quotidian, rhetorical questions, like why the Beach Boys left Alaskan girls out of the equation, or why the song lumps all Midwestern girls into the category of “farmer’s daughters,” omitting a sizeable group. Brown redeems herself, however, by including the complete text of the Beach Boys’ infamous lyrics:

I been all around this great big world
And I been all kinds of girls
Yeah, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the states
Back to the cutest girls in the world [19]

Some of the love poems in Love and Lust are bitter-sweet. Rhonda Lee’s “Bath Brush” recalls an earlier love, whose ritual baths stay in her imagination, though she “should have known/when he brought home/that new long-handled bath brush/he would leave me for another.” [27]

Andrea Potos remembers a first kiss, her surprise at “this tongue—–. . . /darting its was through my mouth like a serpent/coiling through a gash in my life/as if this were its true beginning.” [29]

One accomplished poet here is Marilyn Taylor, who recently completed her tenure as Poet Laureate of Wisconsin. She uses meter and rhyme with skill and wit.

And yet I’m always heading for
those characters I should ignore—

. . . .

. . . whispering just how much more
a night with me might have in store.
Nevermore. Ah, nevermore.
     [49, “At The Cocktail Party: A Monorhyme”]

Eve Robillard, whose poems have been read by Garrison Keillor on his NPR Program, “The Writer’s Almanac,” has contributed several especially inventive and sensual pieces, recreating the relationship of Gertrude Stein and Alive B. Toklas, and she’s recalling her own first encounter with a lover in a bookstore: “When//you asked Can I give you a call I reached/into my pocket and pulled out the bookmark//I’d found that morning on my way to the store--/The Kiss, by Klimt, and wrote down my number.” [35] One of my favorites here is Robillard’s “The Letter ‘A’”: “everything/in the world/(writes gertrude stein)/ begins with ‘A’/she of course/means Alice––her apple her angel her/april her autumn/her asterisk her ampersand/her aperitif”.

The sassy collection of intelligent, playful lesbian and heterosexual love poems by ten accomplished Wisconsin women closes––as I’ll close this review––with a “musical side dish” by Lauranne Bailey and her a cappella group of women composers and lyricists called Ancestra:

There’s nothing like my honey in a blissful tryst
Believe me sweet heaven on earth exists
So see ya later girls I’ve got business so fine
With the man who said “I do” way back in eighty-nine [“My Baby,” 52]

Zara Raab’s Swimming the Eel is due out this fall. Her work appears in West Branch, Arts & Letters The Dark HorseRiver Styx and elsewhere. Her reviews and essays appear in Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, The Review ReviewColorado Review and elsewhere. She attended U. Michigan and has a niece who teaches at U. Wisconsin.