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The Shortest Distance

By: Kathleen Thompson
Reviewed by: Robert Gray
Coosa River Books, 2008
$15, Paperback

The first thing one notices about Kathleen Thompson’s The Shortest Distance is the blurb by Harper Lee, stating that Thompson’s poems are “quietly earth-shaking” and have reduced her to “a quivering mass of admiration & greed for more.” This impressive introduction establishes high expectations. Furthermore, Lee’s use of oxymorons to characterize Thompson’s work attunes the reader to the many paradoxes and contradictions that pervade the volume.

A notable feature of Thompson’s style is the juxtaposition of opposites, as in “If I Had a Hussif,” where she sets the simplicity of a sewing kit’s ability to mend against Columbus teetering over the edge of the world: 

        and he must have considered 
        along with his essential mending, 
        must have flinched at least, 
        at sunset, of the what ifs 
        and wherefores of that looming edge.

This is how Thompson’s poems work. They tend to begin with artful, elegant description and end with poignant observation or reflection. They don’t aspire to seek deep and hidden truths so much as pry subtle ones from house and home by juxtaposing the everyday against seeming larger questions. In this way, her poems evoke a kind of Southern feminism that is more poetic than political, speaking to the strength and centrality of women and the realm of their traditional roles of cleaning, teaching, mothering, gardening, and canning, all in a voice neither sentimental nor submissive, a voice genuine and strong.

Thompson frames each section with excerpts from C. M. Bellman’s “Cradle Song,” which serve to reinforce each section’s thematic coherence and draw a connective thread through the entire volume. But it is perhaps the title poem that best characterizes the collection. “The Shortest Distance” is dedicated to Thompson’s grandson Nicholas “at seven.” The poem tells the story of a grandmother leading her precocious grandson through a variety of beach adventures and lessons, but the poem’s message concerns the lamentably fleeting nature of children’s interest in lessons taught by grandparents juxtaposed revealingly against grandparents’ inability to progress with the child: 

                                                         I am dawdling 
        unable to stay on task with this strange 
        arithmetic that at once suspends time 

        and yet has it speeding away, a catamaran, 
        sails puffed, grown miniscule, the size 
        of little hands spread in plaster, as fast 

        as your mother and her brother grew 
        too shy to hold mine, too busy for sand castles. 
        Factor in this constant of passing time 
        and the shortest distance between two points 
        is not always the straightest line…

As if to demonstrate this, the book itself doesn’t move in a straight line. It wanders, at times almost aimlessly, through small groups of thematically linked poems, flowing through various subjects ranging from the local and personal to the foreign and exotic.

The volume hits several high notes, such as the series of Nicholas poems, or “Fusion,” which contains these lovely lines: 

        floating at will as long as I willed 
        but should will waver, I’d fall 
        like the dogwood leaf 
        wed to its branch 
        until brilliance browns.

The voice in the poems often speaks in an elevated tone, dropping phrases in French and Spanish, discussing enchanting tourist destinations, and demonstrating a tone of expert certainty. However, Thompson playfully rebukes this tone in “Why She Came,” the story of a Russian woman working at a day spa. The poem subtly displays the emptiness and superficiality of our American value system by powerfully juxtaposing the day spa dreams of the well-to-do American speaker with the 

        unsettling answer [of] 
        this chemist professor fled to 
        America, trimming toenails.

It is in the final section, however, that Thompson truly finds her stride with a series of poems about the canning rituals she shares with her sisters. These poems are stripped of any conspicuous art and speak directly of real feelings, real life. Canning becomes a metaphor for Thompson’s poetry, preserving memories, people, and relationships for posterity, a metaphor reinforced in the book’s penultimate poem, “In the Sweet, By and By…”: 

        I stood and stared as I pasted labels, 
        a thing my sisters have never done— 
        no need, they know what is what.

Thompson, as the youngest sister, recognizes that her sisters know what she doesn’t, so she gives those things names, converting them to words. Sept 2009

Robert Gray, the author of Drew: Poems from Blue Water and I Wish That I Were Langston Hughes, lives in Mobile.

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