By: Janice N. Harrington; foreword by Elizabeth Spires
Reviewed by: Bruce Alford
BOA Editions, Ltd., 2007
The entrails of a slaughtered sow, the child born with a goat’s face, the cousin laid on a railroad track: such images make up the core of Janice Harrington’s Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone. These images weave in and out of her poems but never appear the same as the poet plays with theme and variations.
This is apparent in “What There Was” which acts as a poetic index for the rest of the book. Here, the speaker mentions her great-grandmother’s clothes “passed down, passed down.”
The poem that follows, “Killed in Childbirth,” picks up the reference to clothes folded away in a cardboard box: “...down and down into a room of sand / in search of a box....”
In addition to a “quilted” poetic core, the book is framed by poems that are antipodal.
The opening poem, “The Thief’s Tabernacle,” ends with the line, “I build a house for us. Rejoice.” The poet is presented as thief, godlike, bold enough to climb the heights of Olympus.
In contrast, “Shaking the Grass,” the book’s concluding poem, closes with dreaming verses that contradict the romantic ideal of the poet, powerful—capable of lifting “rifle-crack riffs and calving icebergs.”
The speaker here is no powerful thief in black-folded veil; instead, she is uncertain, swaddled in a hollow: “The air smelled green, and wands of windy green, a-sway, / a-sway, swayed over me. I lay on green sod / like a prairie snake letting the sun warm me.”
That wind, gusting to the south, turning to the north, turning, turning and returning in its cycles is a source of both delight and despair. The poet echoes the writer of Ecclesiastes: All is vanity.
In traditional Judaism, Ecclesiastes is read on the Shabbat, in or near the rush of festivities. It is a reminder of eternal calm and a warning not to place ego over that which abides. Here again, Harrington sings after the fields the sorrow of life and echoes Ecclesiastes: “I lay in a field of grass once, and then went on. / Even the hollow my body made is gone.”
Despite the somber theme, the music strikes a hopeful tone. The poet’s lips may fail and her name be forgotten, but the ground from which her poetry arose will hold and be in abundance. This book, chosen by poet Elizabeth Spires as winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize, acts as one long, exquisite poem with its depth of layering and colloquialisms that are (especially for southerners) nostalgic and musically fresh.
Bruce Alford is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.