Thursday, November 29, 2007

Poetry pick: A Sweetness Rising

Please allow me to introduce you to Roberta Spear. It's possible that you have already met her work in the pages of Poetry and other publications or in the three volumes that she previously published. If you haven't encountered Ms. Spear's poetry before, A Sweetness Rising: New and Selected Poems offers an introduction, an invitation to her work.

In his introduction, Philip Levine mentions that "she never pushed her own work…If this meant she would publish less and sell fewer copies of those books she published, so be it." Reading her books, including this new volume, I'm left wanting more.

In addition to the new work, A Sweetness Rising includes a few poems from Silks, Taking to Water, and A Pilgrim Among Us. The book begins with the new poems, and then the sections are arranged chronologically, so it's possible to follow her work, conceivably, in the timeline that it was written. As a "new and selected" collection, it's very selected, and the previous books contain many more poems.

Roberta Spear's poems extend an invitation into a place and in the people who live in that place. They offer you a moment in a life, whether it's the end of a day for a young girl and her father, as in "Paleta" or the mother and her son in "Dust," on their way through the wind and dust to pick out a birthday cake.

Take these passages from "A Nest for Everyone"

the shoulders of workers crouched
between vines. They lower
their knives, the bronzed
leaves fall to the mud...

Or in "QuinceaƱera":

two maracas stir up the wine,
the wafer, the sacred words
like spoons in an old metal pot.

Then she goes a step further, into the magical, as when she describes the aunts who have traveled

in gray shawls tatted by spiders,

And although the poems are grounded in the daily experience of her home, Spear reaches out—to Akhmatova in "In the Moon," or to Stradivari in "The Fiddler's Wife," which continues

…at sunrise
he returned to his bed
remembering the delicate slits,
the dark veneer of a mouth
that never closes…

It's luscious and restrained—the best kind of poetry to read with all of one's senses. But, in addition to its open nature—its invitation—Ms. Spear's work impresses with its generosity, its sense of humor grounded in empathy, as in "In Just One Day":

Smack! The woman laughs for God
and all the others as she slaps
the wake with her fat, brown palm…

…She laughs here, but she'll be the first
to kneel down on the cold slate steps…

Or in "Contraband," a poem about her son purchasing cigars in Rome:

…He wants to press
his shoulders into the warmth of a stucco wall,
waiting in baseball cap and shades for
that moment when the girls on their lunchbreak
gather at the fountain…

I especially enjoy the poems about Italy, and in the introduction, Mr. Levine notes, "If she couldn't live in the Italy she loved she was determined to find a way of bringing the country of her devotion to the Valley, and she did exactly that with her poetry." In "Contraband," in "Escaping Savonarola" or "Chestnuts for Verdi" she brings Italy into her poems—but it's her love of place and empathy for the people who live there that bring all of her poems closer to the country where you want to stay.

That is the secret and the power of poetry—the possibility to transform, the invitation to experience the world you haven't been to, a world that's a pleasure to discover. I invite you to visit A Sweetness Rising.

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