April 2004

Wendy Anderson

poetry

The White Eyelash by Susan Kinsolving

The complex struggles of age and youth, mothers and daughters, families and their not-so-tender truths. Sense and madness, innocence and sour fruit. This mixed bag of a life is found in Susan Kinsolving’s new collection, The White Eyelash, which starts out easy enough in “Some Snows,” with a woman quietly and joyously spinning her own circular symphony, alone in a snowstorm in the dark. But happiness is tinged by darker thoughts when she considers, “Any winter could be my last, yours/ours. How dreadful the knowing and not/knowing. . . .” Things turn frankly grim just two poems later:

Thin Blood
First bruises, plums on the thighs, soon
another attack, blackberries on the back. Then
steroids are started for a round-the-clock thrill
until a crash comes and the bruises are done. . . .
. . . .Eyes go bright blood red.
Other patients are dead. So when both ankles break:
piece o’ cake. With this new year, who’s not without
fear, but damn happy, even grateful, just to be here?

Kinsolving’s pieces, divided into six sections with titles from “Blurring Myself” to “No Longer Here,” sometimes allude to physical and mental illness and friends who urge “getting a grip.” We learn quickly that this is an unfamiliar choice: “. . . .Collisions,/ afflictions, murder, misery, poverty,/insanity,” reflects the woman reading a paper in “Subscriber as Survivor.” “I pause to see what/ the weather might be. Then I’m on/to so-and-so’s obituary. But so-/and-so’s no one I know. And some-/time we all have to go. So far, though./not me. . . .”

“Driveway” sets the tone for poems in the “At the Exit” segment:

Sullen, snide, sad, I was an adolescent
asked by my mother to open the garage door
while she waited behind the wheel. I walked
in front of the car and lifted the large handle.
As the door went up, I met my mother’s eyes
through the windshield. When we went inside
the house she said, You know that I just had
a chance to kill you. . . .

A grandmother, in “Undeserving,” has spent her life shrouded in emotional stinginess toward her pretty, exuberant granddaughters. “She cannot tolerate their abundant experience/and gladness. It is an inequity she cannot forgive.” “Striving” presents a controlling mother who wants her teenage daughter to be as popular and well-liked as she was, while the daughter both wants Mom’s approval and repels it. Only as a grownup does the daughter realize her mother had truths to impart.

The book is full of insights and regrets. Poems on a daughter putting her mother into an extended care facility are some of the strongest. We become overwhelmed with the place, the mother who lapses in and out of strength and lucidity, the daughter who is both baffled and deeply sad. “The Rec Room” shows us the institution’s walls “decorated with large paper cutouts:/ bunnies, pumpkins, turkeys, flags, hearts, et cetera,/according to the season. The social worker explains/these acts as reminders of where we are in time,/helpers with our orientation. I nod in disbelief, wanting/to know where I am at this instant. When did I become/my mother’s keeper?. . . .”

“In Her New Dining Room” describes frequent mealtime food fights and the mother’s disdain for the resident “gargoyles,” as she calls them. Yet when the daughter arranges her removal from the home, she shrieks and balks. “. . . .And so we stay. . . .By Thursday, she has hurled a bowl of soup/plus two platters of peas. Everyone seems to have adjusted but/me. The nurse smiles. 'It’s normal here to feel certifiably crazy.'”

Not all Kinsolving’s poems are dark. Some are simply loving -- such as one describing a new baby -- or playful -- such as one describing a child taking immense pleasure in eating berries. Several poems employ food imagery, and like untried recipes they give us mixed results.

“From Kitchen to Studio” cleverly depicts a cook-artist: “Rhubarb red mixes in her head/with rose madder./She sees cadmium in carrots/Windsor green in string beans./Raw umber thickens in gravy./Bananas ripen in aurora yellow. . . All this mixing is true. She devours/colors and tastes them too, mixing/her paints with panache, adding/a drop of honey or a Tabasco splash.”

The slight “Unfortunate Ice Creams,” listing sixteen flavors ranging from calamari crunch to chicken liver brittle, might best have been included in a children’s book and left out here.

Beat and rhymes in the poems are unusually drawn and can become tiresome in their sameness. But they can work beautifully, as in the tender, very ballad-like “Cutting the Braids”:

Such severity of scissors, my hands
had never known. Of all the ways,
this was the worst for a child to leave
her home. The blades severed
a thousand strands and then ten
thousand more as seconds sundered
years to come from all the years before.
To see her blind eyes closed, so cruel
an irony of sleep, made me hear more
sharply her mother’s distress, her sisters’
weep. . . .

Kinsolving’s first book, Dailies & Rushes, was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist for poetry. That book was praised by The New York Times, the New Yorker, and others. She has taught at the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Connecticut and this summer, according to the center’s Web site, is scheduled to lead a session of The Writers Center at Chautauqua in western New York.

The White Eyelash by Susan Kinsolving
Grove Press
ISBN: 0802140297
99 pages