Carnegie Mellon University Press 2018, 80 pp., $15.95
In Kathryn Rhett’s extraordinary first collection of poetry, Immortal Village, a startling central metaphor is a small bad picture of Nicaragua, which “is all wrong— / every element has edges.” It’s a “primitive picture,” “…with its church, clouds, / volcano, impermeable clumps of tree-matter, all stuck,” and in the opening poem, “Small Bad Picture,” Rhett juxtaposes this with her complicated vision of womanhood: “Fragmented into bits, I— / what woman isn’t—.” What follows is a wonderfully jarring non-chronological trajectory from daughter to wife to mother, from childhood to travel to parenthood and work. At once playful and fierce, the poems are edgy, urgent and open-minded, often embracing infinite possibilities as they evoke the pointed traps that await a lifetime that expands, even as it may seem to narrow.
As the poems skip back and forth in time, they mine each place—Florence, Trenton, Harrisburg, the south of France, Mexico, San Francisco—and return again and again to history and to myth. In “Arc,” “Joan turns her armored chest toward you. / She says: / I was burning / when they came for me to burn me.” Here and elsewhere the women await a violence that they expect and do not blink at. It’s a speculative poem—“How controlled, how symmetrical she is / in a mildewed bedroom over crooked streets”—but it’s also a lyrical poem: “She is still a mess, the story has not dressed her / for the hole yet, in Christ on his globe / and golden lilies on a white satin field.” Here and elsewhere, these poems do many things at once. They make poignant and haunting claims about the roles of women in a world heavy with men and conventional expectation and how these roles are confining and must be broken from, while the poetry itself is open to striking imagery, terrific lyricism, and the sense of being in two worlds at once, the now and the then.
This straddling of time and place lends itself to a straddling of rebellion and appreciation. While “a ring around the bone” might symbolize the rigidity and skeletal qualities of marriage, there are, in “Wedding,” “thousands of me, of me.” What choice does the couple have, then? “I can’t stop filling the spaces / of you with implications / until the two of us are a mind / busy murdering what won’t belong.” That unity is achieved at significant cost. In “Rain in Mexico,” it is manifested in a couple’s travels: “I wish we could do it again / sometime—take off and stare at things / happy not to know.” The line breaks in this collection are wonderful, pushing us forward.
Backward, in the same poem, is one of the great charges of the collection: “I so much wanted a child.” In “Book of Hours,” one begins to arrive: “The child growing larger by the hour, as if birth were endless.” As an infant, in “Dream,” “Her eyes flick, side to side; / she can’t remember where / she’s come from.” In “The Gaze,” she is a young girl, “a golden furze around her face,” who ultimately “…springs / from her confinements.” In “Circumstance,” “I wished that I were stronger / to carry my girl in my arms / with a measure of dignity, / or shelter.” Later, as she rides a horse, in “Crown,” “I see the body radiant / as a November day shuts its gate— / girl and horse a thin corona / before the fence. / Before the twilight cold / begins, and / banks and fractures us.” In “The Visit,” a poem early in the collection, “You have to know that I am older now— / my camera in a case, / the kids’ school pictures / in my wallet.” The profound ordering of the collection keeps the reader thinking back while moving forward, not to rearrange time, but because the bend in this river invites it. In this arrangement, meaning doesn’t contract. It multiplies.
Rivers run throughout this collection. The eponymous “River,” itself, keeps opening up, finding more, girls who “stare straight out / in old sweatshirts, with their hair / in clumps, and look poor. / A place where the bee pivots in dirt.” We see spiders, yellowjackets, kittens, land on “Johnson’s inaugural ball” and a crippled dog, “and the swimmers wear tennis shoes,” finally settling on “Where the praying mantis eats / the silently waving insects / and tilts its triangular face.” It’s a span of time and space, bold, strange, and resonant. At the end of “Killer Dream,” another poem mainly about a river, “I feared anyone could kill anyone, / each of us a small contained explosion.”
Here and elsewhere, there’s the call for and an anticipation of “laying down some violence” that connotes not only danger but, sometimes, a release of passion. It’s a complicated, unsettling vision. In the final poem, “I Meant to Speak,” the voice begins almost fancifully, “I meant to speak only of angels, / yet they resemble so much else— / white sails approaching the port, or / migratory birds returning,” yet it ends, as so many of these poems do, unexpectedly and satisfyingly: “I once was sure and certain / as a stone / (or the way that sounds) / my body yet to multiply / and wander.” Like this self, Kathryn Rhett’s Immortal Village expands and fragments—often explosively—into greater meaning, mesmerizing and wise.
Kathryn Rhett grew up near the Delaware River across from Trenton, and now lives with her family near the Susquehanna River across from Harrisburg, seemingly needing to live within one mile of a state capitol. Or near a river. She is the author of Near Breathing, a memoir, and editor of the anthology Survival Stories: Memoirs of Crisis. The recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowship in nonfiction, she is a Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at Gettysburg College. She also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte.
Fred Leebron has published four novels and over fifty short stories. For years he was the Bookshelf Advisor to Ploughshares, and has also reviewed books for the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Provincetown Arts, and other venues. Awards for his writing include an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize.