Reviewed by Pam Kingsbury
The Life and Death of Poetry, Kelly Cherry's ninth full-length collection of poetry, is the 2013 winner of the L.E. Phillabaum Prize for Poetry. Like Cherry's memoir, Writing the World, and her essay collection, Girl in a Library, the book takes writing, language, and communication as central themes. Divided into three sections—Learning the Language, Welsh Table Talk (A Sequence), and What the Poet Wishes to Say—the poems move from silence and the sounds of animals to a father, his daughter, and non-related, yet intertwined friends, attempting to find— not always successfully—the words to bridge the distances between them, until finally reaching the joy of language, and the pleasures of the ordinary word. Dedicated "For my students, then and now," The Life and Death of Poetry is in the tradition of Ars Poetica and John Keats' negative capability.
The book's opening poem, "Which Is a Verb," sets the contemplative tone for everything that follows:
We fell out of eternity
into time, which is a verb.
Life was just rushing past us,
and we began to rush too.
Everything was a blur. In the confusion,
some things got mixed up with others.
Setting poems in unnamed but familiar nature (""Fields With Shrew," "Field Notes," and "A Blue Jay in the Snow") and faraway places ("A Sunday in Scotland" and "Chekhov in Yalta"), the poet reminds the reader of the commonality of language and the human desire for connection and clarity. Nature's voice is instinctive while human voices have to learn speech, sometimes fumble for words, and border on the self-conscious.
The sequence Welsh Table Talk, which was published in a fine limited edition sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, explores what is unsaid, what is misspoken, and the ways words fail in even the most intimate relationships. Set in a secluded island landscape, Bardsey Island, off the Welsh coast, the poems imagine the story of a woman who wants to find her place in a family of a man and daughter. The isolation of the island reflects the isolation in the woman as she realizes (from "The Sheep-Fly") "I've failed your test."
The final section, What the Poet Wishes to Say, offers advice on writing, translating, and thinking about poetry. Cherry's wry wit and the genuine pleasure she takes in composing remind the reader of the glee young children find in discovering rhyme and meter.
As always Cherry's poems are meticulously crafted. She writes very directly to the reader, offering her impressions of learning to speak, experiencing communication in nature, and listening to the serenity and the agony of quietness. Long time readers of Cherry's work— whether it's poetry, fiction, or non-fiction—will appreciate the allusions to the Russian masters, the nod to philosophy, and Cherry's continuing dialogue with the reader about writing and the writer's role in society. New readers will appreciate the accessibility of image and metaphor.
Kelly Cherry, who taught for several semesters at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Virginia with her husband, fiction writer Burke Davis III. July 2013
Pam Kingsbury teaches English at the University of North Alabama.