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Dancing on the Rim

By: Clela Reed
Reviewed by: Tony Crunk
Brick Road Poetry Press, 2009
$15, Paperback

The opening poem of Dancing on the Rim pointedly announces the scope and general subject of Clela Reed’s first book of poems. "Prologue" describes a sort of pre-lapsarian age in male-female relationships, when "Love / was that boundless pool that held / the swirl of Time…." Though most of the poems directly engage this theme of romantic love, the theme of time is the more subtly handled, and the most effective poems are those that engage both themes most obliquely.

The poems explore an array of nuanced dimensions and vicissitudes of adult love, from the un-self-conscious giddiness of "Love Poem in Yellow and Blue" and the visceral gratification of "Consummation," through the betrayal, pain, and loss of such poems as "Friendly Fire" and "Cold-joining." The book generally progresses in its mood from the innocence of the former to the wisdom of the latter.

Accordingly, given the book’s post-lapsarian vantage, time, along with an acute awareness of its interweaving promise and ravages, are palpable dimensions of many of the poems. Paradoxically, though, in many of the best poems, as in the best lyric tradition, an awareness of imminent transience serves to concentrate the poet’s (and reader’s) attention so fully on a present moment that time itself seems transcended. For example, in "Adrift," two young girls float together on a lazy sea: "[b]efore we found what lay ahead, (what now absurdly / is our past…) / we hung suspended… / …cloudless skies / high above us and the shoreline just a wave away.”

Appropriate to such concentrated attention to immediate experience, many of the better poems are distinguished by clear, detailed descriptive imagery. This, for example, from "Blackberry Winter": "On flowering brambles at roadsides and flanks / of sprouting fields, sprays of white on arcs of green / are lifted to the sun, and the air is too cool for May."

Most frequently, the book’s richer poetic insights grow organically and unpretentiously from such moments of sustained attention, as in "October Beach”: "But the late sun ahead / solders shoreline to sea / …and when you step before it, /…I know it is you, / familiar as lighthouse or steeple, / calling me home / again." Reed has the ability, then, to discern and excavate the truly poetic from the otherwise ordinary or unexceptional.

In some poems, though, this impulse falls short. For example, a poem about a significant museum experience takes an unfortunate detour into the gift shop: "You humored / me in the gift shop—poster, magnet, t-shirt / wholly bovine bright…." A meditation on the transience of personal encounters during travel begins with an airplane’s stowed baggage: "What’s stowed away adapts / like loose detritus in the flow: / Leather bag leaves canvas tote, / briefcase snuggles into parka" ("Contents May Shift During Flight"). As opposed to genuinely discovering poetry in the commonplace, such passages result in a banality of language and insight.

A number of the poems are centered in extended metaphors for love in general or for some aspect of its experience. For example, "Love Sonnet 86" compares the loss of love to encountering "road-kill," "Fable" compares tension in a human relationship to that experienced by chimpanzees in the wild, and the book’s title poem is an extended metaphor for love as "dance." In contrast to the many strong poems that are rooted in the concrete, the closely observed, the finely articulated, these exercises in metaphor, while appearing to concretize emotional experience, giving observable analogue to ineffable feeling, fail to provide grounding for the abstraction “love” and thus do not help to illuminate it.

In the end, this is a mixed collection. Many of these poems are well conceived, well crafted, and richly rewarding. When they over-reach, though, they seem too self-consciously "poetic," taking away from the book’s other fine accomplishments. Dec 2009

Tony Crunk is a teaching writer in the Alabama Writers’ Forum’s Writing Our Stories program.

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