By: Sue Scalf
Reviewed by: Melissa Dickson Blackburn
Negative Capability Press, 2010
Sue Scalf’s chapbook collection, To Stitch a Summer Sky, is full of the lush imagery its title implies. From first poem to last, Scalf presents visual vignettes which weave the natural and the mortal worlds with a romantic flair. The poems’ central preoccupation is frequently the mutability and solitary nature of the human experience as in her poem, “Hope,” which begins,
and each is alone,
this is the smile
that grins in bone [. . . .]
The poem “A Twig Has Told Me” bemoans, considers, and ultimately celebrates nature’s harsh and changing seasons and
[. . .] a universe so star-blasted, so remote
that gases wrap great galaxies,
and nothing touches at all [. . . .]
The poem turns on the speaker’s observation of “heather budding in a brown vase, / a plain vase colorless as my soul [. . . .]” The speaker’s faith is renewed by the poem’s conclusion: “yet a twig has told me / something small and green shall last, / and something in that telling/warms the winter doubt.”
The title poem is a charming bequest in which the speaker declares,
Nothing to leave,
not talented with brush or needle,
I could not create those thick quilts [. . . .]
By mid-poem the speaker implies that something stitched will be left behind:
But look at the seams, see the traces
of blood, rust colored, where I pricked a finger?
See how intricately the pattern is made?
By the poem’s end,
[. . .] Memories, wind in the eaves,
rattle of sleet upon the panes,
firelight shadows, scent of pine and cedar—
all I had and so for you, these [,]
one suspects that the intricately patterned stitchery isn’t made of cloth, but of the poet’s words piecing their visual, sonic, and olfactory quilts. Given that this is the title poem, and a meta-poem bequeathing the poems themselves, “To Stitch a Summer Sky” may have been better placed at the collection’s opening or conclusion. These poems are predominately concerned with what remains behind, and this poem is one answer to that question.
The entire collection has a lyrical retro-flavor with diction and syntax that points to poets of the nineteenth century, epitomized by lines like these from “‘There is a land of the living . . .’”:
So this brief fire,
pulse and breath,
shall leave behind
no sound, no tinge
of sea or cloud,
little at all of beauty.
While some of the poems have contemporary signifiers, a pack of Marlboros, a trip to the grocery store, most of them are timelessly staged in nature and in the mind of the speaker. There is very little irony or humor in To Stitch a Summer Sky. This indelible sincerity, occasionally veering towards sentimentality, is the collection’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
Sincerity in contemporary poetry is certainly a rare quality. In that, Scalf’s collection must be applauded. These poems are utterly genuine, undeniably intelligent, and ultimately lovely. Despite their old-fashioned inclinations, they are skillfully issued. As Scalf’s poem “‘There is a land of the living . . . ’” says, they “rise beyond the rim / of dying day.” Nov. 2010
Melissa Dickson Blackburn is a poet and marketing executive in Auburn. Her first collection of poems, Cameo, is forthcoming from New Plains Press.