Sherri Felt Dratfield, The City, Finishing Line Press, 2013
by Kathrine Yets
Sherri Felt Dratfield's chapbook The City, published through Finishing Line Press, gives the reader imagistic fragments of life in New York City. She shows life there on a small scale and large—from a humming bird to a clock repair shop. Dratfield claims to be unable to translate such moments, writing that the hummingbird, “whispered with its wings/ miracles of life/ if only I could translate flutter,” but she can and does: she writes about the lovely little miracles of life, the moments that go unnoticed.
In the first poem of the chapbook “Tale of Two Sundays,” the mundane is made extraordinary by her words. She gives an account of a Sunday morning in New York outside a coffee shop—men rollerblading, twins holding their daddy's hand, an eight year old playing on his scooter, a man walking his dog, a woman walking into the coffee shop—showing her readers a normal Sunday. Then, she crosses the ocean, giving us life on the other side in Italy outside a coffee shop—brioche con crema, dolce treats, female friends smoking then saying ciao. The images are not exactly parallel, but they are both ordinary, just a common Sunday, made lovely only by description. My first read through of this poem did not leave me with much, but the more I read it, the more charm I find.
Other poems also did not impress me on the first read, but sometimes to catch the brilliance of a poem, you have to take a second glance. “Time Pieces Repaired” (a poem which won a Margaret Reid Prize for Traditional Verse) felt jumbled to me on my first read, but looking over it again, I realized it was a sestina, so Dratfield was slightly restricted in what she could put in and how. The poem contains so many lovely details, especially the cuckoo clock, “Cool china hair, paint blonde, frames lips which hum/ to me, place the key in my clock-case/ and turn, turn till I can dance: release me.” There were times the end words felt forced, but all in all I felt this was a successful sestina.
A political poem in the chapbook is my favorite of her poems. “Hallelu” resonated with me on many levels, bringing tears to my eyes. I feel the whole poem must be presented in this review to give its splendor justice:
A boy stood, back to the Hudson,
a noose around his neck.
Nine or so young years, he hugged his heavy sign,
fingers cramped with the fervor
of clenching each side of this sign
that clung to him and hung him
as he watched, unflinching.
Bitchburger, it said, in thick bold black
atop a baby in a bun. Hold it high, young man!
Hang it high, my son! Look devils in the eye.
The big man, 10 signs tall,
loomed near, rooted to the gravel
that may bear the corpse of his son's soul
if it comes thrashing down,
as it may,
strangled by cords of hate.
We flow behind her, Hallelu,
her rainbow trident held aloft,
toward the Hudson, Haleluhu,
beyond the barricade.
The song of Psalm 150 pours from us like tears,
soaks the ground, Haleluhu,
and grows a tallit tree that spreads its branches
wide enough, like hers, to shelter us
from these slurs.
We face hate, Haleluhu.
with her clear, undaunted eyes.
One of us leans in and whispers
What is a Bitchburger?
I shrug, as our reprise resonates, Haleluhu,
in a sapphire sky. Halleluyah.
The hate we see in the beginning of the poem is heartbreaking, watching a little boy be conditioned to hate what he knows nothing about. But there is hope when the rainbow trident raises in LGBT* support and the crowd sings Psalm 150, which reads, “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals." Everything Everything that has breath: every person—heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual or pansexual or asexual—everyone. Poems like this give me hope for a better tomorrow; show the light in the darkness. There are so many elements in this poem outside of the message itself, such as the sound, anaphora, and images, that bring the whole poem together and make it beautiful to the eye and ear.
At the end of Dratfield's chapbook are a series of ekphrastic poems. Almost all of them respond to paintings at either the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, except for “Repose in Motion,” which was inspired by the Chinese Garden Court (gardening is a form of art!) of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In her ekphrastics, she chooses mainly to focus on what is there in the painting or garden, but at times steps outside of the art. In “A Crow Flew By,” inspired by Andrew Wyeth's painting, she turns the poem to go outside of the painting, “He hunched/ and winced/ at what small pain/ we cannot know,/ as his eyes,/ cleft in sun and shade,/ caught sight/ of this dark flight/ in the year/ of my birth.” In almost every ekphrastic piece, she has this turn in the end, going outside of the art and/or giving it a voice. The only ekphrastic poem that does not have this turn is the last poem “Apple Tree.” In this poem, Dratfield personifies the apple tree in Arshile Gorky's painting and text, giving the image in the art a voice. Dratfield has accomplished with these poems what every poet who writes ekphrastics wishes to do: step into and outside of the art.
I would also argue that “Sixty Soon” is an ekphrastic piece as well, since it is inspired by aging, one of the many arts of mother nature, which some may find beautiful and others, well, not so. “Sixty Soon” confirms our culture's fear of aging, beginning with, “No oils, lotions, creams/ contain this avalanche of age./ Sixty pummels me this year.” Her last stanza relieves my gerascophobia, though, with its hope for feeling young again or more the right age (I am not quiet sure which) through family, “I linger with my/ wrinkles,/ hope Mara/ all saffron hair and sassy air,/ will breeze in/ soon/ with her high-pitched hi Mom/ so I can/ fit my skin again.” After reading this, I can now understand on a different level why my grandmother enjoys my visits so much.
The City is a debut collection that Dratfield can be proud of.
Kathrine Yets is a graduate of UW-Whitewater.