By: Sue Scalf
Reviewed by: Allen Berry
Negative Capability Press, 2008
A good friend and teacher of mine once told me, “Poets have the gift of an extended goodbye.” Sue Scalf’s new collection of poems, Bearing the Print, dedicated to her late husband Sam and daughter Leslie, reads at times like an extended farewell. Using nature as a slate, Scalf explores the themes of love, death, and the hope for renewal. These themes are addressed with beauty and grace, without the slightest overstatement. That Scalf gives these intense subjects such an incredibly thorough exploration in a diminutive fifty-six pages is a tribute to her proficiency as a poet.
In “Triptych for Autumn,” the book’s opening piece, Scalf uses fall as a metaphor for grieving the loss of a loved one. The poem’s protagonist, indifferent to the change of season, states, “Whatever spring returns / there is an end to love.” Scalf paints a vivid, almost tangible portrait of the season that plays a potent counterpoint to the emotion underpinning the work.
Amidst the bright colors of fall that decorate the canvas of “Triptych for Autumn” lies the deep and gloomy shade of meaning brought home by the ending lines, “autumn is exterior / to the farewell that is inside.”
If autumn heralds the opening of the book, then winter must follow. Though more akin to emotional than literal winter, the second phase of Bearing the Print explores the themes of death, emotional hardship, and the arbitrary forces at work in daily life.
In “Without Shelter,” Scalf reminds anyone who grew up in the Deep South of the arbitrary nature of the weather. Every darkened sky holds within it the possibility of death and destruction. In the face of such unpredictable weather, we are defenseless. Scalf captures this idea in the lines, “Mouths dry, we beg to be spared, / just this once, just once more, / how capricious the god of wind and rain, / we drop to our knees.” Rain mixed with hail is pounding against my windows and walls as I write these lines and emphasizes how vividly Scalf captures this aspect of life in the South.
However, as winter follows fall, spring follows winter, and as the book draws to a close, Scalf offers the promise of spring and new life. Here Bearing the Print espouses a hopeful tone. “Overnight the World Changed” describes the magic of a snow-covered landscape, and the promise of new life. The sudden addition of rhyme in the closing stanza has a charming effect, emphasizing the poem’s optimistic message:
Always once in spring
an open window brings
the scent of mint and rue;
light rain sweeps the sill.
A quicker breathing tells me, too,
that even love can come again.
Allen Berry is the founder of the Limestone Dust Poetry Festival. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Alabama at Huntsville.