Last January, Tracy Koretsky wrote a fine review of my most recent collection of poems, The Night Marsh (WordTech Editions, 2008.) She worked hard on it over several days, but hadn’t found a home for yet. Now it has one. (I didn’t have a blog at the time, or I would have posted it then.) The Dodge Foundation will feature me as a “Festival Poet” on an upcoming (very soon, since they are going alphabetically) “Poetry Friday” post, and to help them do so, I have shared (with her permission) Tracy’s review with them. I am very grateful to Tracy for her careful and insightful review—especially for the time and thoughtful effort she gave to writing it. Here it is:
The Night Marsh
WordTech Editions, 2008
Generosity. If there is one word with which to describe this seventh full-length collection by poet, Penny Harter, that would be it.
First and foremost, there is its dominant theme: the continuity of life, the past simultaneous with the present and future. It’s a trippy idea, frankly – cosmic – and Harter exploits numerous vantages, making it moreso.
Again and again she tells us that we are not alone. For example, in these lines from “A Promise of Home,” Harter offers advise for easing an alien:
and you must tender it your animal hand
as you would to a strange dog, letting him sniff
to learn that you’re okay, you’re not afraid
then, in “Multiple Exposures,” acknowledges the ghost dogs trotting concurrent with our pets, their feet never touching ground. Later in “The Melting Snow,” she reveals the deaths of the three children in an old photo before describing the photo or putting them in, and throughout, extends imaginary empathy from elephants to earthworms.
The Night Marsh is generous also in its address. These are accessible poems in the best way: not assuming anything about their audience – reliably structured vehicles for their ideas, their diction, clean and direct.
It is the offering of a mature poet who has moved past the subject of “I.” These are poems addressed to all of us, for the most part, about all of us. When Harter does share of her own life, her images are neither coded nor glamorized and her predominant subject is her mother’s death – a fairly universal experience.
A central figure within the American haiku community, Harter is, as might be expected, at her best as a nature poet. Take this stanza from “Today Toward Sunset”:
Today toward sunset, three crows
soared on the late March wind,
calling to one another until it seemed
that one harsh caw braided the space
between them, then fell toward me
through the fading light.
The careful attention to specific moment: “toward” sunset as opposed to sunset itself; “late” March instead of March – as well as the unadorned word selection demonstrate haiku influence.
I will admit that I came to this collection curious about how a poet so firmly founded in American haiku would integrate its sensibilities into her free-form work. There is, of course, its rather Zen theme, but structurally, by which I mean the disjunctive “leap” made in haiku poetry between its two parts, I am surprised to find less influence than expected.
Rather, the rare occasions that she does “leap,” are employed strategically, underscoring her theme by dint of their cognitive effect. For example, in “Gossamer” the first and title poem of the collection’s second section, she opens with:
Somewhere in this garden
a spider is spinning
the rooms I have lost.
Here she makes a leap between the third and fourth lines and sets out what will be the section’s primary topic. A few pages later in “Strawberries and Cream” the lines
You had other lovers.
The years are clouds, dust motes
floating in rooms of afternoon sun
leap from the first to the second, summing the overall theme of the book.
But in contemplating Harter’s choice not to use haiku structure – structure which I suspect she falls into as naturally as hiking – a small but pleasurable exertion – I am struck that as a choice, it is, once again, generous. Harter has provided structures that most readers can easily enter into and feel comfortable within. She opens her narratives by setting locale in their titles or opening lines, stanzas end in paragraphs, if the story comes through a documentary, she acknowledges it. There are no convolutions here, no smoke and mirrors.
And if so many of this gentle book’s strengths are in its generosity, then alas, so too is its weakness. There may be too much of this book – its density crowding out the light of individual poems.
But that too, perhaps, serves its argument. There is less space than we allow ourselves to believe, crowded with invisible yet viable consciousness, our own, only part of a humming whole.