Book Review

Snowbound by Elizabeth Tornes, 2011.

     Reviewed by Elmae Passineau

Whether or not one lives in snow country, the winter imagery in Elizabeth Tornes’s Snowbound captivates and delights the reader.  It was perfect reading for a windy January afternoon following a nighttime snowfall.

In the title poem “Snowbound,” Tornes admires “the shadows of branches—/ blue webs on white snowdrifts”; she notes “a tiny mouse track / (that) zippers across huge continents / and great divides of snow”; she writes of “drifts of snow (that) make giant zigzags, / the wind’s perfect sculpture.”  Her metaphors include herself:  “I am the scavenger, / gathering strong words / to scratch into trees.”

Tornes leads the reader through all four seasons in northern Wisconsin.  In the narrative “Summertime,” she tells a sweet and humorous story that her mother told her, but the poem ends with poignant lines that tell us even more:

                        Mother mother mother mother please
                        tell me your stories forever.

Most of Tornes’s poems deal with nature and beauty and serenity and solitude, so the narrative “Boarding School Story” comes as a shock, a powerful punch to the belly. 

                        The old man…
                        told me a story once
                        of the boarding school priest
                        who chose him,
                        or his brother, nearly
                        every night of the week.
                        One night he said no.
                        Next morning the priest
                        took him into the basement
                        and paddled him until he bled…

A second poem, “After a Friend’s Suicide,” also has a dark and disturbing subject, but also hauntingly beautiful imagery:

                        Overwhelmed, I look over black treetops,
                        to faintest smudge of grey
                        masquerading as sunset
                        in this our darkest season…

The glorious season of autumn could never be overlooked in Wisconsin.  In “September Ride,” Tornes calls it “a gift, to ride a bike / in the early morning.”  And she continues with

                        I like to feel my heart beating,
                        to become intimate
                        with the earth, to meditate
                        on its origins and its days to come.
                        It teaches me to learn
                        which flowers blossom beneath frost
                        and which grasses green up the longest:
                        The Indian medicine called squirrel tail,
                        Ajidamoo waanoo, showy white
                        lace blossoms above a green dress,
                        tall fescue, and buffalo grass,
                        skeletal seed pods of lupine
                        dropping left and right
                        in this icy race towards death
                        we call winter.

In “Autumn, Northern Wisconsin,” Torres begins with melancholy:

                        The thought that in my heart flames up
                        this morning as the wind rattles the windows:
                         that I may never see some of my friends
                        again, never look into their faces and laugh
                        or hear their voices telling me stories,
                        chapters of their lives I’ve missed.

But as many of us would, she says, “I realize the price I’ve paid for solitude” and seems to find comfort in the shivering trees, oaks “just beginning to rust around the edges,” maples that “flame up scarlet and orange,” whispering leaves, and a memory of “the cries of loon and osprey that echoed in the bay.”

She calls these “nesting days,” with

                        …flames in the woodstove bickering, bookshelves
                        furred with books waiting to be read, blue jays
                        hollering jubilation in the distance…

and the reader is left with a sense of contentment.

This same peace in nature and in the present moment is found in “Evening Canoe.”  She writes

                        So this is serenity—the not wanting,
                        absorbed in the present moment,
                        the flippant smack of a beaver’s tail,
                        a moment of consciousness
                        come, and just as quickly gone,
                        melting back into the emerald water.

Tornes’s 24 poems range from an eight-line “Palimpsest” to the three-page “Snowbound,” all in free verse and clear, flowing syntax.  The format ranges from unrhymed couplets to poems with no line breaks at all, but all are comfortably suitable to “one-sitting reads.”

An interesting aspect of Tornes’s poems is her occasional use of Indian language, words that look like they would sound like music, if only the reader knew how to pronounce them.  In “Waaswaaganing,” she combines her themes of nature and seasons with those of spirits and ancient beliefs.  She writes

                        Over by the old village, the centuries old
                        Waaswaagoning, where we still remember
                        and still feed those who’ve walked ahead,
                        leaving wild rice, berries, and maple sugar
                        on the ledges of the spirit houses
                        sheltering graves at the cemetery.
                        You can sometimes see the spirits
                        of the old ones crossing the road,
                        veils of mist in the early mornings.

A book of poetry so filled with the love of nature and heritage and words is surely fulfilled with a love poem.  In “After the Proposal,” Tornes reminds us all of how we felt newly in love with “Love oozes out of me wherever I go.”  And her spouse-to-be must be honored and humbled by Tornes’s blessing:

                        I bless his sweet shyness, his “Yes, Love”
                        when I call out to him, his 19th century diction
                        of a gentleman.  I bless his Roman nose, his archaic
                        wire-rimmed glasses, and behind them,
                        the almond-shaped brown eyes of a Picasso painting.
                        I bless his love of Greek, of German poetry
                        and the French language, which we read
                        sitting together on Christmas Day…
                        I pray I’ll learn
                        to make you, the man I love,
                        and all beings and things
                        in this new world, sacred to me.

Snowbound is a book for nature lovers and city dwellers alike.  Tornes captures in words the red squirrel, the woodpecker, the wind and trees and cold of nature, and also the universality of love, of spirits unknown, of cruelty and death.  Her thoughtful lines, crisp imagery, and gentle acceptance all contribute to the reader’s sense of pleasure in the reading and are reminders to be witnesses in our surroundings.

Elmae Passineau, Wausau, is a retired English teacher and principal.  She has published three poetry chapbooks, On Edge, Beloved Somebodies, and Things That Go Bump in the Night.