Two Book Reviews

Driving to Heaven by Tracy Youngblom. Parallel Press, 2010. $10 

Reviewed by Linda Aschbrenner

Driving to Heaven is Tracy Youngblom’s first chapbook. Based on the craft and clarity in these poems, more books will be forthcoming from this Minnesota poet. Youngblom, who teaches poetry at a community college, holds an MA in English from University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, and an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College. She is poetry editor for the on-line journal Emprise Review which publishes fiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews. In the “About” section, Emprise Review states, “As the name suggests, we’re game for something bold and or adventurous. Give us your best. Give us your interesting. Give us a good story.”

Tracy Youngblom is herself writing good stories in poetry. In fact, many of her lineated poems could be transformed into prose poems or essays. Her 26 poems are meditations as well as explorations into the ambiguous and disparate nature of relationships. She relates stories about parents, grandparents, sisters, children, and loves writing with wit and restraint. Youngblom uses a conversational style often with a run of iambics. The forms are a mix of couplets, tercets, quatrains, along with poems of various stanzas. 

Her poem “Growing Big” reveals a mother’s life after a father “saw his reflection / in the bottle, / thought himself more than lovely / and withered down to a seed / and blew around forever.” The father’s departure had impact upon both daughter and mother (“Thumbelina my mother was born small / and grew even smaller”): 

    While she flopped into the real world
    like a penny into a fountain,
    came up sputtering and reaching,
    always reaching for:   clothes on the line
    phone on her desk       her own name
    her full height.
    I sit in my house,
    partly my father’s lovely worthlessness,
    partly my mother’s stubborn refusal to be small.   (page 14) 

The poem, “Undoing,” a string of ten quatrains, also covers the emotional impact of a father’s departure. One can imagine the distilling that went into this spare poem which utilizes some iambic meter, alliteration, and assonance. The unraveled golf ball is a fitting metaphor for life’s undoing:

    Once my father called me to the edge
    of the table to watch him nick 
    a golf ball with his pocket knife,
    peel the hard, pocked coating

    as if it were an apple, crisp
    but white. He set it before me
    and it began to unwind
    while we watched it, unable

    to stop, shed its many layers. 

The poem concludes with this memory of the father: 

    Soon it would be hard to tell him
    from him. From every state,

    he claimed to be the same,
    though each wife was a new 
    addition to his signature,
    scrawled in a slanted hand.

    Now I see why I stashed
    that ball—what remained of it—
    in a drawer. But then? I knew
    nothing yet of self-destruction,

    its lure and lurid call, I just
    wanted to touch it at night,
    in disbelief, feel it hum, tiny
    heart, small dark core.    (page 35)

Lost love is the topic of the poem “Touching Tongues.” Thoughts about love are also addressed to two sisters in the poem “Family Psych”:

    The really great thing about love
    is that it can only kill you once,
    after that you’re dead
    and it’s a lot easier to take.     (page 20)

“Trip,” a car/journey poem built with expected and unexpected nouns, has an innovative line about blood relationships:

    It’s driver-choose-the-music as we head south
    on I-35 at midnight, my mother’s new Jimmy loaded:
    CD player and air, suitcases, family nerves.
    I lie on the rear seat because I’m supposed to sleep
    now, drive later, and because I have a bad back,
    a pain someone can name. But my mother and sister
    fill the front, they are large in the way that only blood
    can make you, their voices drift back to me, mixed up
    with lyrics, lights strobing across my closed eyes,
    everything distilled, filtered.         (page 26)

Other poems delve into Youngblom’s thoughts about her sons, the many questions to be asked about forging relationships with those who will outlive us. From the poem “Joseph”: 

    My son gives me a print of his hand. It reminds me
    that he will grow up, that it is hard to build
    something that lasts, has meaning. On the card
    he says, I hope you get all your work done.

    What does he say at the end of his life?
    How much does he know?        (page 31)

Youngblom’s title poem, “Driving to Heaven,” covers the conversational ground about heaven with her young son while she is “dodging cars / and my own doubts.” This is a finely constructed poem.

With all the poems about family, Youngblom’s poem “Release” is about escape from  family—in a grocery store. This jaunty iambic poem begins:

    One Friday night I quickly give my love
    an awkward public kiss, spin him
    dizzily away, speed my children
    off to their father, exchange polite criticism,
    and leave alone for the grocery,    

    where I become myself once more, childless
    and cartless. My list a secret, I whistle
    through the aisles slinging looks
    at the young men who dare to look
    at me, who topple like a card house

    under my gaze. I am exotic, elemental:
    wind and light, promising nothing.      (page 38)

In a 2009 online interview, Youngblom writes, “My absolute favorite part about writing is finishing something and feeling like it’s done—knowing that I’ve used words in a specific way to make a point, to effect a feeling, that not even a single word should be changed. It takes a long time and a lot of frustration to get there, but there’s nothing like the feeling of having MADE something. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the process—I do, and I love drafting because I can just write anything I think of—but the fine-tuning and the sense of completion are the best.”

Yes, one could say that Youngblom has MADE something.  A remarkable first book.

Linda Aschbrenner is the editor/publisher of Marsh River Editions. She edited and published the poetry journal Free Verse from 1998 to 2009 which now continues as Verse Wisconsin