Let me first say that one ground-breaking thing about this collection is that Ms. Kincaid is heretofore unpublished in the traditional sense but very published and lauded in the blogosphere. She is in fact, among the best of the poets who post their work online to make it available to a readership with a click, bypassing the tiresome ceremonies of submission, enduring rejection, resubmitting ad infinitum until at last, a placement.
In truth, not much seems to have changed since the days in which male editors controlled the literary magazines and if you were a woman writer you had to write like the male poets du jour to get published, i.e. with a dissipated, alienated voice in short lines, emotion controlled.
I remember those days well, when Lyn Lifshin, Marge Piercy, Carolyn Forche, Mary Karr and I were among those who hung in until we could be and would be taken seriously, our work appearing in the infamous The Little Magazine, in the early Ms., and other signature journals of the 70’s. With the rise of the blog and the many permissions we not so incidentally give each other to share and support one another’s work– some of us carrying on in both old and new worlds– we get to bypass all of that rigamarole.
More than the purists believe, the new practice of publishing independently online has become an entirely legitimate way to be read and a legitimate form of independent publishing and building readership. Witness that Ms. Kincaid has collected work that originally appeared on her blogs and had the mss accepted by the highly regarded Finishing Line. Witness that poets Floyce Alexander, Joy Harjo, Maureen Doallas, Dawn Potter, and yours truly post work to blogs with a host of others and that a number of excellent and traditionally published poets and poet/editors such as William Pitt Root post poems in “note” form on Facebook, “tagging” a wide readership accustomed to digesting vast amounts of information in very small type!
In fact, Ms. Kincaid hosts two blogs, Life at Willow Manor that has accrued quite a following as well as an award from Google Blogger, and a blog/meme called Magpie Tales wherein she posts a weekly prompt, a photograph of a cultural artifact or object of interest, to summon forth our associations and engender a poem. Many of us have been able to grow audience from Ms. Kincaid’s endeavor as well as to produce weekly drafts ourselves.
Patina is a collection of poems grounded, as the title suggests, in a valuation of the past, and the richness in the work surpasses the merely quaint or anomalous. Consider these luminous lines, from Pocket Watch for Peachy Bright, 1841-1865: You slip from the wool lens pocket,/and hit my hand full and hard,/like a splash of cold Mississippi. In this first poem Kincaid gives us a moment resonant with history and poignancy wherein a Union soldier hopes to return from the Front: April hope swarms a homebound boat;/dashed dreams blaze bitter-bright./’The Sultana sinks that night, at Paddy’s Hen.
Most of us read poetry not for history, but for language and beautiful and/or compelling specificity. And listen to the crispness and singularity of this music: April hope swarms a homebound boat/dashed dreams blaze bitter-bright. It is the distinctiveness of Ms. Kincaid’s language that pulls the reader into these poems; it snaps and cajoles the senses, and the imagery oh so thankfully, surprises.
The title poem Patina comes fairly early in the collection: I especially love, “Under his bifocals/his eyes had accrued/a thick luminous layer, ripe/with tales of the great depression.” While there is a disjointed predication here– that the mucousal elderly eye is ripe with tales of… we have the stunning image of under his bifocals/his eyes had accrued/a thick luminous layer— with their hard yet resonant consonance. And a sweep of tenderness in this poem: I listened, mostly, mute/afraid to shout large/enough for him to hear. And a killer final stanza “The sound might discharge/ the fragile pod, a burst/of woolly seed, his DNA/in parachutes. There is a linguistic confidence in these lines that deliver an old man’s fragility so distinctively.
The poem Fifth Street is a tour d’force of language and a beautiful casting of what we used to call local color, and Depression era American life. Here is the first stanza:
They declared their chips in Kansas
Ace came round in a new fangled motor,
Wore a fancy suit. She flew to him
Like a railbird. Freehand wrangler,
He scooped her up, built his deck
With brick and mortar..
Again, marvelous and crisp alliterative consonance: declared..their…round..railbird.. freehand wrangler…brick..mortar. Short descriptors distinctively and carefully layered give life to the subject of the poet’s attention.
In The New Order Ms. Kincaid comes to the book’s central disclosure: I am a magpie/My fleshy nest/is feathered in flotsam./ Not a hoarder, but rather/a hunter, gatherer of thoughts,/a scavenger of curios and the curious. Again lovely alliteration, compressed description—this poet has mastered several deeply significant principles of poetry: that meaning should emerge from the figure, i.e. the image, the metaphor—and that there need be no over-elaboration or commenting upon the image; the image should be trusted to speak forth as the bearer of meaning.
This poem’s last stanza is also telling and exquisite: I, too, am carefully wrapped,/boxed, and labeled “assorted secrets/and stories”, a discreetly forgotten casket,/stowed dowerless, in a thrift store of dirt. To be “stored dowerless”! Oh fate that waits for us each.
Another feature of the work is the judicious use of place names, themselves lyrical and resonant. In Apprentice the poet writes, I helped you tinker/clocks, remember? You gave me/a salt shaker in the shape/of a pink flamingo, like gold/from the ruins of Knocknasheega.
Again and again in the collection we are reminded that at issue is the object in which the past is incarnate. In Blue Plate Special: History grinds on,/as I yell out, “Blue Willow!”/whenever they pop up/on checkered tables/from here to Albuquerque,/in The Duke’s wild hand,/or as Stanwyck takes a film-noir sip. These lines of course refer to the Blue Willow-ware many of us know, love and remember that became part of the iconography of family gatherings, touchstone to those we love and remember, for generations.
I am impressed by the consistency of quality in this chapbook from poem to poem, as well as a congruence of moving, beautiful imagery: from I Am October: I toss my gathering/from harvest cradle/to the breeze of gods,/like an old galosh/pulled from a pond. The harvest cradle—distinctive; the old galosh—an exquisite, squashing, slapping and splashing surprise—wetter than wet.
Poem after poem in this book is dedicated to prior generations of the speaker’s family—people we don’t know but do know, as if each poem were an epitaph—but one of great tenderness. The person’s name is spelled out with exactitude, complemented by the resonant dates of the life span, e.g., 1891-1932.
Several of the poems do not cast into the past, but offer up appealing intimacy and are again wrought with great care. Ms. Kincaid’s daughter is a soprano, and in Lamb Chop we are given a beautifully sustained metaphor:
It was a long hot summer
Of pastries and Pavarotti.
Little did I know,
Craving donuts and opera
Would bake up a tasty creampuff
With a mouth wide for song.
Not till the judge tossed his pencil
And leaned back in his chair,
Did I realize your splendid fare.
Sometimes the recipe was wrong,
But you opened those brave chops
And sang like a daughter of God.
The ovens have been hot;
Your crust is not as tough
As it seems. After the wild flour
Settles, your sweet bel canto
Puts Krispy Kremes to shame.
These poems with their wit and care put me in mind of the phrase The Unbearable Lightness of Being, title of the brilliant novel by the Czech Milan Kundera– ‘Insoutenable légèreté de l’être . With a deft, discerning hand Ms. Kincaid sketches a moment, a person caught in a revelatory pose with physical, resonant detail but lightly, gently; this is a book that doesn’t hit us over the head with the edict “Thou shalt value the past”, but compels us to think of our own histories and geneology as caches of poignant, lyrical information.
There are errant small weaknesses in the work—-occasional prosaic lines that would be better served by a figure, but these are minor and such things afflict all of us, no matter how accomplished. I have high hopes for Ms. Kincaid’s growth as a poet and am blessed by our interaction and interest in one another’s work. To this debut collection I say “Brava!”
Order Tess Kincaid’s Patina from Finishing Line Press. Visit Magpie Tales and Life at Manor by clicking on the live links.
About Tess Kincaid; she is “ …a self-proclaimed magpie, and Hoosier by birth, living in Dublin, Ohio at Willow Manor, a ramshackle limestone on the banks of the Scioto River, with her husband and resident ghosts.”
Poet, Critic, Blogger and Memoirist Jenne’ R. Andrews’ work has appeared in a number of journals including, most recently The Adirondack Review; her collections include the small press book Reunion, Lynx House Press, The Dark Animal of Liberty, Leaping Mountain Press, and In Pursuit of the Family, Minnesota Writers’ Publishing House, edited by Robert Bly. She posts work in draft at La Parola Vivace in addition to submitting individual work and book-length collections to journals and presses. She has recently been writing “Rilke variations”—an exercise that has become a vital part of her daily writing practice.
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