Book Review

Athena Kildegaard, Cloves & Honey, Nodin Press, 2011

Reviewed by Kathleen Serley

“Why this impulse to write about love?”(9) Athena Kildegaard asks in the opening untitled poem of her engaging collection, Cloves and Honey. Why indeed. Kildegaard set herself the task of writing one love poem a day for a year. Cloves and Honey is the noteworthy result of her dedication to this task. The poems, all untitled, are stylistically diverse and arranged by seasons to give the sense of moving through the year. Included in the collection are brief poems that speak volumes about love.

Holding hands on a hot day—
like grabbing fish—
there’s so much to learn about love. (43)

Yes, there is a lot to learn about love and the image of “grabbing fish” makes us pause to consider just how elusive those lessons may be.

Under one umbrella,
your left shoulder wet,
my right  should wet,
we crossed the river. (43)

This everyday image of two people partially protected by their umbrella develops the metaphor of mutually shared love and how it can take us through difficult times. This poem is a good example of the power of a few carefully chosen words.

There are prose poems in which Kildegaard reminisces and admits to being “astonished at the mystery of love,” (53) and poems prompted by quotes. One especially well-crafted poem begins with a quote from N.F.S. Grundtvig (71) “Give me a simple life, a merry heart.” From this beginning, Kildegaard explores alternately expressions of merriment and simplicity.

For merriment
double yourselves
eight hands gathering apples
chopping and grinding
passing the ceremonial glass

For simplicity
open the doors
the neighbors will come
with wine and bread (71)

Her choice of images common to all our lives contributes to the warmth of this poem. Who of us will not agree that sharing a task with friends makes it more enjoyable; how simple to open our doors and welcome neighbors into our lives.

In another poem (18), Kildegaard muses,

There must be rules for what goes
into a love poem: a full moon, a red rose,

breast—heaving or cream-pale—night
and stars, a balcony, all that seems right,

But Kildegaard’s one rule for a love poem is, it seems, to capture the essence of love’s expression with a simple image from our ordinary lives. In one prose poem she describes her lover coming home from work.

Today you locked your office door
and strolled down the hallway, your shoes
rapping against linoleum, and your colleagues,
still burrowed into their desk chairs, surely thought
how nice to go home, who knows if
anyone will be there. But they didn’t, you did,
you eased down the stairs, out into the cold
and on the way home you listened to the early news,
stories of mismanagement and distrust. Cows
across the highway blew steam toward the west
and you turned east and then south and you were
home, just like that, and from your chair in the living
room you watched me come through the door. (92)

No red roses here or full moons, but the feeling of love is undeniable.

Cloves and Honey is interesting on several levels. First, imagine writing 365 poems, one each day, on the subject of love. The discipline inherent in such a project is an inspiration. Then imagine discovering a variety of themes and situations to explore. Kildegaard explores the more usual topics of love between two people

What I like is to watch you
in the garden. How you stand
before a tomato vine surveying
what has been, what’s to come. (41)

as well as love in unexpected situations, as she did in a poem musing on the circumstances of a disc jockey snowbound at the radio station. She begins by describing the DJ’s isolation in contrast to the way the radio listeners are isolated at home

...baking bread
or cracking pecans, or
better yet, sitting on the couch
holding hands. (88)

But contentment is where you find it, as the ending of the poem reminds us.

The DJ sat up straight,
cued Aretha
and danced by himself
in the padded compartment
at the station, where the snow
fell even faster and left
a drift two-thirds up the main door. (88)

Finally, add the component of a variety of poetic forms and Cloves and Honey is an achievement for one year in a poet’s writing life. Readers get a sense that Kildegaard enjoyed honing her craft during this year by exploring diversity in subject, theme and form.

Of all the captivating poems in this collection, the one I will remember as special is:

The wind asks
the tree: how long
will you stand
here, in my arms?

The tree throws
back its head
and says:
when will you
let go?

What more could we want from a poem or from love than to be held in the arms of the wind?

A lifelong resident of Wisconsin, Kathleen Serley enjoys all of our seasons: spring gardening, summer beach combing, fall hiking and winter snow shoeing. She teaches English.