Sunday, November 11, 2007

Poetry pick: One Hundred Steps from Shore

Jenifer Browne Lawrence knows how to tell a story. In One Hundred Steps from Shore (Blue Begonia Press), she writes searing emotional poems with a depth of precision. It's a difficult balance, but here the craft doesn't call attention to itself, doesn't distract from the language or the story. It's just there.

Through her narrative poems, Ms. Lawrence speaks of family history—death and grief, innocence and the reflection that follows its loss. Her voice encompasses childhood and the depth that memory—years later—brings, without the two experiences fighting each other. She plumbs death, terror, guilt, and regret in the everyday way that people do, the way that they cope:

My sister dumps a puzzle on the table.
We don't follow the usual rule
of not looking at the picture on the box.
Wheat bends toward the red siding of a farmhouse.

We work the puzzle, find the edges first.
We form the frame before we begin the middle.
Mom and Dad go in and out of the waiting room.
They bring paper bowls of chocolate pudding
and little wooden paddles.

Through childhood and living, Ms. Lawrence reminds us that grief is like the tide and returns, as in "Porcupine Child":

how did I come to be
the ferryman burying over
and over the same stick in the water

taking babies across
the black river rubbing
their stains into my belly

While inviting the reader into worlds in Santa Cruz, California or Valdez, Alaska, the poems explore relationships between fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers, the conversations they start, the secrets they keep from each other.

Opening Day. Only he and my brother go,
and it is thirty years before
I learn what happened there—

In other poems, Ms. Lawrence speaks in a slower, more meditative tone, as in
"Keeping Our Heads Underwater":

we are motionless
as the river we swim
under the glacier to see
what blue means the ice keeps
its secret we could burn

In all, One Hundred Steps from Shore offers readers a window into the pain of survival and the undeniable pleasure of good work.

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