By: Kelly Cherry
Reviewed by: Lauren Slaughter
Louisiana State University Press, 2007
In a 2002 interview with Southern Scribe, Kelly Cherry commented that as a young child “even before I had words to say it with, I had something to say…. This need to say what was mine to say preceded anything else in my life.” This urgency “to say” has produced a seventh collection of poetry that demonstrates a range of emotional, technical, and lyrical concerns. Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems is a sweeping, satisfying book that is, as the title suggests, not afraid to risk.
The organization of Hazard and Prospect draws attention to common themes in Cherry’s thirty-plus years of poetry, proving that her claim on what is “[hers] to say” is extensive; family, marriage, sexuality, music, history, philosophy, politics, memory, nature, and death are just some of the themes explored. Leading up to a chapter of new work (I kept reading out-loud the remarkably loose and sensual “Virginia Reel”), poems from her previous collections are organized by headings such as “The Family,” “Life in the Twentieth Century,” and “Questions and Answers.” And because these big headings reveal careful poems that ask more than they answer, it means we can believe in them.
But while they are often bold, Cherry’s poems are not overly confident. For example, in an early poem, “The Family,” a girl coping with the death of her father follows a shaky statement with an even shakier question: “. . . I don’t know why I’m loved. / Why am I loved?” Asking a question like that could certainly turn hazardous—and later in the poem it does, as the speaker says resignedly, “I am learning history / by watching other people die.”
Clearly, then, Cherry is interested in edging toward the essence of shared human experience. In “Imagining the Past” she writes, “Who can imagine playing the piano / having forgotten how to play the piano?” But she is finally most keenly interested in the female experience. While those poems sometimes chance heavy-handedness, they read as authentic and often showcase Cherry’s knack for gutsy metaphor. Though “Nobody’s Fool” begins “Gazing down / that dark well. / A good-looking man pushed me— / in I fell,” the speaker falls into water “black as a bruise.” In the less-conflicted “At Night Your Mouth,” a woman describes her lover as “the ship / the harbor dreams of.” Finally, though, perhaps Cherry is most accurate in the new poem, “Virginia Reel,” describing the love for a husband who “brakes for box turtles.” Hazard and Prospect says most in such moments.
Lauren Goodwin Slaughter is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and prose editor for the online journal DIAGRAM.