Friday
Dec052014

Talismans

By Maudelle Driskell


 

Hobblebush Books
April 2014
978-1939449030

Reviewed by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.


 

The poems in Talismans, Maudelle Driskell's first collection, offer the reader a tangible experience of nature and the body, honored and distilled by a curious and finely educated mind. They tell of nature deeply and pragmatically known, and of the body as the source of joy, betrayal, and damage. All of this is done with grace and humor in poems that feel both unselfconscious and finely-wrought.

The opening title poem offers us an example of how Driskell's juxtapositional chemistry works. Here is its first stanza:

At the flea market across from the Commerce speedway
you can buy Elvis relics in zip-lock bags
with masking tape labels—the napkin smeared with peanut
    butter
and banana grease, the pocket comb with a single strand
of black hair twined in its teeth, rhinestones
dandruffed from the white Las Vegas jumpsuit. All point
with the insignificance of dogs that have already treed the coon
towards the masterpiece of the collection—Elvis's wart.

The poem credibly locates us, with neither affirmation nor snark, in a geographic and cultural moment. We are, affably, among the gullible, listening to a charlatan assert, "You could clone Elvis from that wart." However, just before the reader's smirk takes root, the poem describes and enacts a similar transformation:

Something simple happens—devotions, beliefs,
strong through some accident of conductivity—
too much salt, too little salt, in the cell spaces of the
    neuroconductors,
some brief spell of ball lightning rolling through our brains—
quickening an interest in the local auto mechanic,
sending us on crusades, giving us the idea for Velcro,
telling us to kill our wives, leading us forward
in blind faith, making us hear The Word
and hope that, unlike steak, we move on to Glory,
seeing, for the first time, the glistening strings of dew
in moonlight, strung all along the spider's tender lines,
leaving us shaken in the divine smell of strawberries.

What happens here is hardly simple. Faith and neuroscience, lust and murder, are bundled in lines that move by means of music toward an illumination firmly grounded in the fauna and flora of where we are in this local and recognizable moment.

There is more of this combination of quotidian strangeness and hierophany. In one poem a boy in the Shetland Islands imagines himself Achilles and masturbates by the light of a dead seabird; another poem gives us a dying professor, "his knobbed head bulging / above the tumor," who stands at the edge of a Louisiana lake at night, summons its loggerhead turtles and:

gave them Dido, the sadness in her eyes, her desire,
her hall of suitors. And gave them bees, how to husband the
    hive,
how to steer by the low star, all the Latin he loved.

In the book's second section the poems become more personal, each spoken from inside a human body that has experienced love and damage. "Forcing It" fuses the cannibalism among five hundred newborn chicks with household violence, the speaker describing several wounded chicks as:

                                                  too stupid
to know they were dead. But I understood.
At night I cut and measured
horse bandages to flatten
my breasts when I slept.

The speakers in these poems speak of the disappointment of finding oneself in the wrong kind of body, of the body's desires and pleasures, of the physical and emotional cost of inappropriate or lost lovers.

The third part of the book consists of a single poem, "Fourteen Days," composed during, and tracking the experience of, a tense interval of waiting for a cancer diagnosis. The sequence begins with "Knot":

When I raise my arm, tension—
something connected where it should not be—
gum between sole and sidewalk.
It does not ease with stretches.
When I probe with my fingers and find the node,
it sounds an internal bass note. I hear it
and the house hums in the background
and the neighbor is blowing leaves in his yard
and the clink of the poorly loaded dishwasher
stutters before finding its cadence once more.

The threads of the first two sections are braided through the poems that follow—the body, choice, loss, and wonder—but fear and death, predator and victim, enter the work in a more explicit and immediate way. There is nature and its humor, but it vibrates differently. From the fourth in the sequence:

The day Possum died, we did nothing.
We did nothing because Possum had died this way before.
Twice before. This is where the waiting comes in.

Old Pos could snap into a coma over anything.
Once it was the theme song to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
Its crescendo did Possum in. I imagine it was the whistling,
the mother of all hawks descending upon him.

And then the sixth poem:

As I move down the field the hawks ride my right shoulder,
then dive and feed when the tractor flushes
the rabbits from their warrens, the rats from their runs.
The thundering, the terrible, the roar
freezes some: those the blades mist into the drying piles.
They had a choice. They could have run through the uncut field
to the woods. They did not need to dart into the open;
into the eyes of the hawks. The ones that brave
the clearing, that choose sun over shade, are taken, quickly.

The speaker's strength and competence ("The Things I Can Do") can still be injured by a lover's betrayal, but here they are also hunted and stalked by monsters that creep from a hospital closet or across the deck of a boat at night. Faced with this fear Driskell offers neither understanding nor transcendence, but the physically-centered vision and fierceness that informs the entire collection:

Make me stone. Fill my lungs
with earth, my stomach with water.
Make me the pit of the fruit that breaks
teeth. God, grant me peace. Let me be
a vessel of rage, claw and fang.