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The Mariner’s Wife

By: Emma Bolden
Reviewed by: Mary Kaiser
Finishing Line Press, 2008
$14, Paperback

Emma Bolden, a distinguished alumna of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and an assistant professor at Georgetown College, writes lush, sensuous poetry that explores the territory where intimacy partakes of myth, where the contemporary confessional mode merges with tale and elegy, ode and ballad. In the seventeen poems that make up The Mariner’s Wife, Bolden’s voice, following in the tradition of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, heightens the personal through language that has the precision, candor, and dignity of Sappho’s classical idiom. In the opening poem, for example, “Invocation (to Man),” the lines “You were the light / coating mountainside golden, you were // the prairie proud in its sleep,” raise an intimate relationship to the dimensions of a continent, as man takes the dimensions of a god.

Moving between personal lyrics like “Smoke, Seventeen,” about a summer romance between cigarette-smoking teenagers, and narratives in the voice of “The Mariner’s Wife,” waiting for her husband to return from the sea, Bolden weaves the strands of contemporary lyric and mythic narrative through every poem, the mariner taking the coloring of a lover and boyfriend, and his tragic voyage representing intimacy that is never complete, as Bolden writes in the closing lines of “Post-Departure”: “love’s last / sad trick: love not love // ever after, after all.”

Like Plath and Sexton, Bolden contains intense emotion within strict poetic forms. In addition to one accomplished villanelle, “Controlled Burn,” most are written in two or three-line free-verse stanzas, where line endings hold the syntax of a sentence in momentary suspension. The formalism contributes to the overall effect of emotional intensity controlled and disciplined by precise language and a steady eye for the right image.

That discovery and exploration of the appropriate imagistic vehicle is clear in “Smoke, Seventeen,” where the story of a summer romance is framed by the image of cigarette smoke and its seductive association with movie lovers and their “perfect afterglow / choreography,” sharing a cigarette in bed. As Bolden’s teenagers fumble their exchange, their shared cigarette smoke redeems the moment: “the arch built by the smoke / from your cigarettes--one arch, and this / was all.”

Emma Bolden’s poems present a double narrative in which each story, contemporary and mythic, adds resonance to the other. Not just a collection of individual poems, The Mariner’s Wife is a unified emotional statement in which each poem contributes to the exploration of intimate relationships as our primary meaning, the stages where our contemporary lives in all their complex detail take part in a much longer and older tale of the search for completion in love.  Sept 2008

Mary Kaiser teaches English at Jefferson State Community College. Her chapbook, Falling into Vélazquez, won the 2006 Slapering Hol Award from the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.

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