Friday, October 24, 2008

Reader's Diary #406- Alison Calder: Wolf Tree

I enjoyed Alison Calder's Wolf Tree poems more than I enjoyed Wolf Tree. I liked the poetry, but I wasn't crazy about the arrangement.

Like a lot of non-anthology poetry collections, there isn't a readily identifiable theme running through the book. That's fine. I love potluck. But, imagine if the first eight people showed up with pasta dishes. You'd be expecting a theme, right? So, it's sort of jarring when the ninth person shows up with potato salad and the tenth with curried shrimp kabobs. Wolf Tree is like this.

The first section is "Sooterkin" and there is a definite focus on circus freaks and curiosities. The second section, however, is called "Gravity" and revolves around coping with death. Both sections contain some great poems, but it's hard to find the connection. I question if some shouldn't have been held for a later collection.

In one specific case, however, Calder (or her editor) sneakily uses contrast to her advantage. Hidden amongst the "Sooterkin" poems about Dumbo and the woman who fools people into believing she gives birth to live rabbits, is this poem:

Imagine A Picture

Imagine a picture of your sister or daughter
and stretch it out. Do not stop pulling.
Stretch until the bones jut, until the body
reveals the frame. Stretch until all you see
are bones and eyes. This is a woman
who sends herself to sleep by counting ribs.
Rolls of quarters fit inside her hipbones.
Her elbows are as sharp as the corners of a mirror.
At night she dreams herself a feast.
The first dish is her thigh. The second her belly.
All day she devours herself.

Imagine a picture of your sister or your daughter
and crumple it. Fold until she is doubled,
tripled into herself. Continue until all you see
are the folds of her clothing. This is a woman
who wears many layers. Other people's voices
fit inside her mouth. When asked her name
she says nothing. At night she dreams
a flood and a throatful of water.
At night she dreams a fire and herself
burned away. She writes

I am undead
Mirrors do not show me
and sunlight marks my skin.

Imagine a picture of your sister or daughter
and tear it so many times
that the pieces become invisible.
Give them away to men you meet.
It does not matter whom. This is a woman
who needs men's hands to put her together.
At night she dreams herself naked on a stage.
In the orchestra there are one thousand mirrors.
All day she tries to remember her reflection.
All night she tries to reassemble herself.

--2008 Alison Calder (Used with permission from Coteau Books) *

My first foray into this poem, I was chalking this character up as yet another "freak." Before long I realized how wrong I was, and how, out of the "Sooterkin" context, she wouldn't shouldn't appear that way at all. The more I read it, the more tragic she became. So much so that the other Sooterkins got bathed in the same empathetic light. The decision to place that poem in that section was brilliant.

It made the whole book worthwhile.

(*For an interesting comparison, I found a very slightly different, earlier version of "Imagine A Picture" here.)


Wanda said...

LOL, love your potluck analogy...

I also read and enjoyed "Wolf Tree" and like you especially enjoyed the poem, "Imagine a Picture". Isn't it interesting how poems are always a work in progress; tweaked between magazine submissions, personal collections and anthologies. I've noticed this a lot, another example and one of my favourites is the poem, "Oranges" by Janice Kulyk Keefer (Sorry, I couldn't find one on-line example let alone two to compare). Is a word artist also a perfectionist or is it just that an opportunity exists and poets can't resist? Not sure of the answer but I love finding the revised poems, makes me that much more appreciative of the writing process.

Anonymous said...

Now there's a poem that went no where I'd expected but not only made me think but rang, sadly, true.

Yat-Yee said...

Wow, some powerful and disturbing images.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'm still ambivalent about that poem. I need to ponder it some more.

John Mutford said...

Wanda: I'm sure some writer's would say a piece is never finished, just on haitus.

Carrie: It caught me off guard, too.

Yat-Yee: I thought so.

Barbara: Debbie wasn't crazy about it, either. What was your issue? A little much in the sentimentality depeartment, perhaps?