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What Came Before

By: Irene Latham
Reviewed by: Bonnie Roberts
Negative Capability Press, 2007
$16, Paperback

The cover art aptly describes this first poetry collection by Irene Latham as an organic, growing, nature-of-life-itself work—the roots, the thorns, the blossoms, the birds.

In What Came Before, the possibilities the poet has traveled in her life, Latham shows a hugeness of heart and imaginative spirit of which the world at-large rarely speaks, or even encounters. Readers will want to witness this poet’s “unfolding” as they would a chrysalis “with wings / so wet and fragile / a mere whisper / could crush / or save” (“Virgin”).

In “Why Moths Have No Mouths,” Latham reveals her instinctual awareness of love/lust/passion. Sometimes not "knowing where [she] will end up” on her instinctive journey is ultimately okay (“Study"). She is “from that place where words die . . . and lovers find their skin” (“Oak Mountain”).

Sometimes, hers is the moth’s love, “in which no wrong words are possible . . . two creatures starving / and finding solace in the dark” (“Moths”). In her most “mouthless” poem, “Letter from Malta,” a great love does not return—his returning, “the thing impossible even to imagine.” Yet, “if you should drop from the sky, I would know just what to call you.” She and her lover, mighty in her dreams, could “overthrow the ocean.” And this reader believes.

Despite her “aubade” love for her husband and children—“You are the sand / and I am the surf / each of our children / a moon” (“Eleven”)—Latham’s poems reveal a woman not always at home in the world. She asks the question that haunts all whole-souled creatures in a world that can bind them: “Is it a sin to want to be a bird? . . . And, if it is a sin, let us never forget the Bird Girl / who once stood in this garden, arms extended to all birds” (“Suicide Ghazal”). Not only is it not a sin, the poet’s old-wisdom-in-a-young-heart words, “snapping in a breeze” like her “Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” awaken us to the sensuality, passion, eroticism, sorrow, loss, and love in everything, and everywhere: in trout, monsoons, fingerless old men, swans, and even "a tooth inside a fat fish" ("Two Women"); in earthquakes: “as if Earth was feeling shy / but wanted to be touched . . . was reaching across the bed / to make it come true (“Earthquake”); in Leonids: “If the moon crashes, refuse to notice; you’re here for the meteors” (“How to Watch”).

Latham’s miraculous heart can hold all possibilities: in “At the Aquarium,” silence sometimes covers a lust, “hungry for fingers.” Our Bird Girl, who does not need absolution, can also be a fierce adversary: “Forgive me— / This is war” (“Khyber Pass”). “Gertrude,” the warrior lover, reveals stretch marks, then “dares you to call her beautiful.” In loss, Latham still tastes “the sugar-shore” of a sweetheart (“The Boy I Kissed in Four States”); and, in “Paralyzed,” the pivotal poem of this collection, she “dreams of falling. Not about the point of impact or the moment / after. Just what came before”—and finally, “arms reaching to catch her.”

Bonnie Roberts is the author of Dances in Straw with a Two-Headed Calf.

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