Aubade and In the First Place by Judy Kolosso. Durnford's Landing, 2009.
Reviewed by Judith Swann
When a poet is finally older than her parents were when she was born, there comes a clear-sightedness. Not so much a nostalgia, with its overtones of pain and longing, not so much a wistfulness, with its sentimental edge, but the ability to look at the past and tell a story. Judy Kolosso's book In The First Place could not have been written by a younger poet.
The book as book is well made. The cover shot of a snowy red barn by Carol Deprez perfectly sets the tone, and the dozen or so black and white snapshots from Kolosso's childhood, most notably her mother's last grocery list, p. 25, work well against the loving and family-centered verse. This book was even printed in Hartland WI; and I'm not, as they say, making that up.
Kolosso is at her best when she is strongly biographical. The collection opens with "Places at the Table"( p.1), which faces a photograph of three young children sitting in the snow circa 1950, the oldest of whom is holding an infant in blankets. The photograph is labeled with the names of the children invoked in the poem:
Joan, left-handed, sitting to my left...
Mary at Dad's right and Tom
with one whole side to himself.
The smell of fried potatoes, pork chops
and applesauce pulled us to the table.
The reader too is pulled to the table, as we are in all the subsequent poems, by the poet's ability to make us feel like one of the family. Her gift is not highly technical or very complicated. It is a gift for images more than a penchant for metaphor. It is the gift of vision.
The key poem of the collection can be found a little better than half way through. It is called "The Shape of Love" (p.43). It has no photograph on the facing page, but it does have a dedication to, I have to imagine, the poet's parents. Like "Places at the Table," "The Shape of Love" emanates from the kitchen, the best room in any midwestern farmhouse:
by the kitchen woodstove
bent to the task
at the kitchen table
blending flour, sugar, eggs
There are so many deftly rendered scenes of family love in this book it is hard to do them all justice in this short review. "Octogenarians" (p.10), about the ghost of a winter washday is, however, a masterpiece. The tree surgeons have come to cut down an old silver maple. As Kolosso has known this tree for many years, she says:
On washday, Mama and I in high boots
used to tramp a path through snowdrifts.
She'd wrestle cold, wet sheets,
pillowcases, and overalls onto the line.
I'd hand her wooden clothes pins.
She always worked with one or two
clutched between her teeth.
After school I helped her carry
glacial linens and garments
back into the house. Warm radiators
helped finish the drying.
I love the break after "warm radiators,” it is what warm radiators do to you after you come inside. They stop you.
Although any poem in this collection could be termed satisfying, there is one, for me, that goes beyond simply satisfying and Flirts with the Edge. There is—and I will brook no argument here—a very positive place for sappy, however small that place is. Sappy sweet is a real place, a venerable place, and it is well done in "For My Granddaughter Vivian Kathryn" (p.37):
Your dad, beguiled by what he has begot,
carries you around and coos and babbles
Since by a two-month-old he is besot,
perhaps he will outgrow his gibble-gabbles.
They tote you about in a basket-chair
that latches in the car and faces back
or wheel you in a pram most everywhere.
Look at you now--princess in a piggy-pack!
And I, to be with your sweet innocence,
come on hands and knees--I've lost all sense.
Kolosso's second collection from 2009, Aubade, starts with a quote about animals from Henry Beston, and the book is "for them" she says. Aristotle also furnishes a quote: "In all of nature there is something of the marvellous." The volume comes with another beautiful Carol Deprez cover, this time of a hummingbird.
The opening piece, "Spring Stages In" (p.1) introduces us to Kolosso's non-human family as surely as "Places at the Table" introduced us to her siblings. Sandhill cranes, redwings, turkeys, marsh hawks, song sparrows, mallards, teal, and finally, the woodcock, with his fabled dance and cry, receive Kolosso's spotlight.
Of the 18 poems in this volume, only one goes to two pages. Short and accessible, they depict scenes of pastoral harmony and natural beauty. The deep wonder and empathy of nature inspire Kolosso's inclusion of even the invasive species:
dame's rocket -- a fuschia strumpet
dressed as native phlox
garlic mustard -- tallest white flower
in May woods, an alien
("It's All About Balance," p.6-7)
Later, in the collection's shortest piece, a shaped poem, centered, Kolosso turns the lens on herself:
Can you believe it is I who
An aubade is a song that courtly lovers sing in the morning to bewail the fact that night is over. They lament the coming of the day, as Kolosso laments the coming of "Walgreens" in the penultimate piece of the collection. She juxtaposes the paths yesterday's cows made with roads soon to be graded in:
Brand new paths
running north, south for
No trees, grass, just
black-top parking lot,
The poems in these collections speak in the voice of an earth mother, not the terrible majesty of Eleusis, not the orgiastic Kali Ma, but a grandmotherly, school teaching, Wisconsin kind of mother. I keep waiting for Ted Kooser to pick out one of her poems for his weekly column.
Judy Swann's work has been published in Lilliput, Thema, Apparatus, Tilt Poetry Magazine, and other venues, both print and online. Her work at The Waters has been honored by both first and second place awards from the InterBoard Poetry Competition judges. She is an Iowan.