Target Practice by Jan Chronister. Madison, WI: Parallel Press, 2009. $10. http://parallelpress.library.wisc.edu/chapbooks/poetry/
Reviewed by Estella Lauter
The target in the title poem of this book about living in northern Wisconsin is the full bloom of summer growth, and the arrows are zinnia seeds, which take the poet by surprise, wounding her poet's heart long before they hit their intended mark. This first book is as full of such surprises—some delightful, others gut-wrenching—as it is full of strong images, character sketches, family stories and Lake Superior landscapes, sometimes all in the same poem.
Many of the characters are farm women whose husbands have left them through death or divorce—their lives "sucked into the vacuum cleaner/ with lost buttons, stray pins, single earrings" (15). One woman has to be reminded to buy the milk that her husband had always brought home free from the dairy, and the poet wonders why another didn't know that the thin glass panes of her marriage would turn to dust, or why Aunt Martha didn't know about “uncle's Standard Oil stock/under the peeling [wall]paper” (16). The women who survive in this landscape often do so by wearing their steel hearts on their ears as talismans to ward off the cold (12), or by preserving their hidden thoughts like fossils in the limestone steps (26) of "stoic farmhouses" (22). The poet is an archeologist, peeling back the layers and then "backfilling" to preserve the finds "for future digs" (30).
Women also survive in Wisconsin by driving a lot. Farm women who have been displaced by corporate farms drive to work in factories "past brown city snowbanks/ like crumbs on grandma's white cloth" (24), and the poet goes to North Dakota for “tales of floods and buffalo” (25). In two especially memorable poems, a bird's wings cracking against the windshield evoke a "quiet universal gasp" (36), and the amaryllis as she passes through Georgia reveal their burning cross. It is while driving in a Wisconsin blizzard, however, that the poet and her husband discover "The Effect of Sleeping Children" on their consciousness.
Family stories enlarge the world of this book. Mailboxes read like a map of Finland (18), and conversation at the poet's grandmother's table connects her to Wales (24). Her Montana aunt gives her access to Cheyenne history at Lame Deer. Her grandfather accepts her orphaned mother into his insulin-scarred arms before he is asked. Her father keeps the marbles from her playground games, "discarded planets of a lost universe,/pearls of a forgotten peace" (10). And in the most hair-raising story, a WWI soldier sits down unawares to eat under a tree that holds a decaying Prussian; his helmet falls on the soldier and comes home as a souvenir.
These stoical poems about making one's way support Chronister's most ambitious political poem, "French Lilacs," about the Holocaust in the tradition of Whitman's elegy for the veterans of our Civil War. It begins with the waiting blossoms and steam rising from a warm road while the poet studies the world's reluctant reaction to news of the camps during the War and learns of diaries that recorded daily diets of 220 calories. Even in the spring of 1945, children were poisoned and babies were burned. The lilacs finally bloomed when the Allies liberated Auschwitz, and the poet seems certain that they will open again in other years for those who wait.
Estella Lauter is Professor Emerita at UW-Oshkosh and lives in the Door Peninsula. Her first chapbook, Pressing a Life Together By Hand (2007) appeared in the New Women’s Voices series from Finishing Line Press, and was nominated for two Pushcart prizes. The Essential Rudder: North Channel Poems was released by FLP in 2008. Her poem "Gaza, January 2009" tied for first prize in the 2009 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Contest; it appears on www.wagingpeace.org.