Book Review

Ellen Wade Beals, Ed., Solace, in So Many Words, Weighed Words, 2011

Reviewed by Kathleen Eull

Those of us who have read more than a few anthologies know they can be, in a word often employed by critics, uneven.  Collected by well-meaning editors with an unenviable task, we can find ourselves wondering why these pieces were selected as the best or representative. What a pleasure, then, to discover Ellen Wade Beals’s ambitious Solace In So Many Words. Assembled with great care, this collection brings the reader into an incredible album, allowing us to peer not only into grief itself, but the extraordinary human capacity to recognize, summon and express unique pain, tenderness, beauty, and joy and in doing so acknowledge our interconnectedness and shared experience. 

In a culture which continues to value self-reliance and self-discipline, in which time for reflection is still regarded as somewhat indulgent and grief as something to be gotten over, Solace In So Many Words is an especially significant contribution that gives space and time to that which we grieve individually and collectively without worry for the final outcome. It is, as Beals says in her introduction, about “what keeps us keeping on.” 

If everyone loses, this anthology seems to tell us, no one loses in quite the same way. Death in all its forms, public and private, is that inconsolable loss, the “deep-water sad” (Carol Kanter,“Alternative Eulogy,” p. 95). It is a grief so fundamental, so primal that we are humbled in the force of its presence.  Whether it is the private loss, the death of someone close or the end of a long-term relationship, or the horrific loss of life on 9/11 which merged stunned private into public loss, we are stripped bare.   

As Ellen Bass expresses in her poem “The Thing Is”:

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs:
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?

As the first bit of time passes and we try to wade back into the stream of life, we very often feel suspended in a world which seems to move without us, or we stumble forward under a heavy knowledge we can’t put down. What we’ve seen we cannot un-see. That which we know is not now unknowable. What then do we do? That was the question that Beals began with as she sought to put this project together. As poets, as storytellers, we reach for our pens, pencils, keyboards … and we begin to write. As readers, we reach for these works, seeking the comfort in knowing that someone, someone has found the way to say those things caught in our own throats.  We want first to remember. It is as Nadja Halilbegovich wrote in My Childhood under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary, her personal account of becoming a teenager in the midst of war, “I know nothing can bring them back, but only forgetting would make them truly dead” (Kids Can Press, 2006).

For all the talented writers represented in this anthology, solace goes beyond the ordinary definition of comfort. It is first a bearing of reality, a witnessing, and then a willingness to live with the open wound, eventually finding the way through to a consciousness that recognizes the potentiality of something else revealing itself. Again, Ellen Bass:

Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and  you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

In that consciousness, we dwell on what Mircea Eliade termed the “threshold” or “…the boundary, the frontier that distinguishes and opposes two worlds and at the same time the paradoxical place where those worlds communicate”  (Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt Inc.,  1987).   That threshold is in full evidence in poems such as Antler’s irrepressible “Stop to Think” with its early heraldic exclamation of wonder at the “always new” and its unmistakably confident ending:

Each word you read, each breath you take,
              each time you come, each poem you make,
                          the Earth has moved into a new
And when you die you die
            in a space in Eternity
                         the Earth has not been
            till then.

Here in Antler’s poem, it is the profound recognition that even in the mechanisms of our everyday world, nothing is ordinary which leads to an unabashed appreciation for, and aching tenderness toward, the stubborn resistance of life and its determination to find a way.  “The thing is,” Ellen Bass writes, “to love life, to love it even/when you have no stomach for it” (“The Things Is,” p.22). Solace, it turns out, can be found in anything. It may be the thing that reminds us to get up from where we lie blinking into the long, dark silence such as the news of a tuberworm in T.C. Boyle’s brilliantly quirky story “Hopes Rise.”  Or it may be the grace that comes when we finally give ourselves permission to take stay in the silence a little longer and feel pleasure in the warmth of our lover curled around us.

This is the process of solace, we are told. What finally alleviates our grief is doing the thing we almost cannot think to do, nurturing, as Philip Levine writes, “the strange root of the heart” (“Waking in Alicante,” p. 129) and finding in that compassion for ourselves both our own potentialities and an interconnectedness in which Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield might say, we finally find “solace of the heart” and “a hidden wholeness” (After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.  Random House, 2001).

Kathleen Eull holds a BA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  Her work has appeared in The Emergency Almanac, Echoes, KNOCK, pith, and as part of the Verse and Vision II project at the Q Artists Cooperative in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.   In addition, an interview with New York based poet Scott Zieher appears in his second book IMPATIENCE (Emergency Press, 2009).  After serving for three years as the co-chair and event coordinator for the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, she is currently the director of development for the Pewaukee Public Library Foundation.