Book of Asters, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mayapple Press 2014
Leaf Graffiti, Lucy Burnett, Carcanet Press 2013
The titles of these books suggest a common theme; the poems themselves support convergent evolution: there are so many ways of getting to the epiphany that plants are intertwined with human life.
Burnett’s book opens with a long poem in 46 parts, “Variations on an urban monotone”. That sets the tone for the remainder of the book because the rest of the poems move in a slow arc from the urban to the rural, from the concrete and discrete to the surreal and amorphous.
What I appreciated about the long piece was the sonic texture. There was repetition of concept and word between parts and there was alliteration and repetition inside each part. The parts include “fungus”, “chlorophyll”, “unboxed”, “milk”. They include the speaker’s wait in line at a corner store, noticing they are the only one with skin the color of milk. These are plants in the most unlikely places.
Kindred’s plants are those in the most likely places: yards, ditches, weeds at the edges of driveways. Kindred’s plants define place: the deep South of the United States, dog-days of summer, the stereotypical dysfunctional Southern family. From “Ironweed Summer”:
If we had to be their girls,
then there had to be ironweeds
around that house, needling up
through the pine shreds where
treelight divided one hard season
from the next.
Kindred’s book opens with women, girls, flowers, the allegory of the flower never used as you might expect with respect to women and girls. She leaves behind her oracular voice as the book progresses: the second section focuses on a speaker who has miscarried, using a very confessional voice, and introduces the speaker’s sons, who play a large part in the third section which attempts to blend confessional poems about sons and husbands with the oracular-aster-girls of the opening.
Perhaps the whole is summarized best in an arc drawn between the two sunflower poems: “When They Painted My Room Yellow”, which comes at the end of the first section, and “Sunflowers” which comes near the end of the book. In the first poem, the speaker is a young girl and afraid of “a city of flowers”, “sunflower Armageddon”, and yet knows
the name of my survival
as if I knew myself
gold, a feast of grief ribbons.
In “Sunflowers” the speaker is a mother needing the appetites of sunflowers “needing my skin made gold”, whose sons love to watch sunflowers burn. I confess, I did not want to make that trip with the speaker, from terror to burning. It was the earlier poems, the oracular-aster-girls that stayed with me.
What stays with me from Burnett’s book, even as her poems become literally less grounded, are her ideas. By the time I reach “Icarus” I am a bit lost, wishing for simple leaves, but Burnett instead gives me an essay on gentrification and social-economics tied to place using the conceit of sheep. She offers me the association of “oval” and “ovary” encapsulated in a poem about mirrors in which the lines reflect back on themselves. She offers the beginning of “Acorn”:
let’s grow just like that oak tree
grows both ways both at once