Book Review

Yoga Woman by Barbara Jordan Bache-Wiig. Poetry People Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Kathleen Serley

Yoga Woman by Barbara Jordan Bache-Wiig takes on the difficult subjects of aging, grief and death and manages to inspire readers to embrace life.  Barbara—after reading her poems, I feel that I know her well enough to be on a first-name basis—helps us smile at aging with images like  “...this sweet/older woman on her belly/looking limp as wilted lettuce” from Sun Salutation (1), and with her description in Tree Pose (2) of achieving the tree position “when a sudden sneeze/topples/today’s tree attempt.”

In Getting Older (31), Barbara develops another image, the idea that as we age, we “winter into wisdom.”  At first, we relate to the poem’s message that tragedy can strengthen us and experiences used well help us to grow into wisdom.  But a closer reading reveals an interesting poetic structure, the pantoum, as well. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated in the first and third lines of each succeeding stanza, giving the reader the sensation of circling back through time.  As we circle through our lives, we pick up memories of previous experiences and use those memories to build awareness.  In a similar way, Barbara uses this process to develop her poem.  For example, the first stanza of the poem begins:

Years of experience mellow us into wisdom.
A kind of wintering, like the weather;

The second stanza picks up this second line and begins with “A kind of wintering like Wisconsin weather.”  The second stanza then develops this idea of “wintering” with the assertion that Wisconsin winters keep our “minds and bodies alert and flexible.”  This line is, in turn, restated to begin the third stanza which develops the idea of staying alert and flexible.  In this way, the poet takes us through the stages of life as she constructs her theme.  We “find ways to deal with the impossible,” “test the waters,” and “try to avoid drowning” until we come full circle. The last line of the poem, “ Our years of experience winter us into wisdom,” repeats the idea expressed in the first line.  The construction of Getting Older mirrors the message that life is a circle of experiences.

Yoga Woman is more than a collection of poems; it is also a testimony to the poet’s life. The book is dedicated to Barbara’s husband Bob whose picture appears with hers as the frontispiece, and the epilogue, a speech by UW-Waukesha associate dean, Dr. Phil Zweifel, provides a biographical sketch of Barbara.  From this information, I assume that the poems are about Barbara’s personal experiences with aging and grief.  But especially in the second section of the book, I am not always sure for whom she grieves. Because the inclusion of the biographical information leads me to believe the poet is writing about actual experiences,the subjects of some of the poems are confusing.  For example, what is the poet’s connection to John in One Myth (28)?  Who is “resting in a rented coffin” in Ready (14)?  It would have been helpful for the poet to have included a brief introduction to each of the three parts of the book to set the scene for the poems included in each of the sections.

“Poems are not mere intellectual exercises...they define our lives, our sense of time and place, and they help make sense of the world,” UW-Whitewater professor Dale Ritterbusch says in the introduction, capturing the essence of Yoga Woman. That process of writing poetry to help make sense of the world is especially evident in the final section of the collection.  In this, my favorite part of the book, Barbara writes about grief.  Alone (44) is a good example of her use of specific details to describe grief. I imagine each reader will relate to a different image in this poem.  For me, the strongest image is the list of the items accumulated on his side of the bed.

On his side of the bed, she has
accumulated a cluster of how -to-grieve
pages, three copies of the magazine
Free Verse, a Mary Oliver book
of poems, My work is loving the world,
this month’s novel for her book club,
March by Geraldine Brooks,
her nightly Italian practice pages,
and nearby—a big box of Kleenex.

The description of this woman amid the clutter of objects with which she is trying to fill her life helps me sense her despair, and readers who have grieved for a spouse will relate to the ordinary items listed here. Trying to make sense of her life, the woman in the poem reads her books by the light of the “cherry wall lamp he made for her,” and snuggles “into bed wearing her pink fluffy footies [to keep her feet warm we assume] and his pajamas.”

From Yoga Woman, readers can learn the craft of poetry writing, but more importantly, we can also gain insight into the art of living well.

Getting Older

Years of experience mellow us into wisdom.
A kind of wintering, like the weather;
But how best to share all we’ve learned
May take another lifetime.

A kind of wintering like Wisconsin weather
Keeps our minds and bodies alert and flexible,
And it may take another lifetime
To learn when and how to use our treasure.

We continue alert and flexible,
Finding ways to deal with the impossible
As we wonder when and how to use our treasure.
Tragedy brings loss and with effort, strength.

Finding ways to deal with the impossible,
We test the waters for where to toss our bread.
Tragedy brings loss and with effort, strength—
Like a sad experience that wrenches and teaches.

We test the waters for where to toss our bread and
Try to avoid drowning in our eagerness to share.
Using experiences that wrench and teach,
We stretch to grow, strong, patient, and quiet.

We try to avoid drowning in our eagerness to share.
We breathe hope and tread water
Stretch to learn patience plus strength and stillness as
We share what we’ve learned with the next generation.

Grandchildren offer another lifetime as
Our years of experience winter us into wisdom.

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.