Review of Heather Thomas’s Poetry
A very fine experimental poet, Heather Thomas writes books that flash in your mind. She has a visionary imagination and the technical brilliance to show it forth in startling imagery. In her new collection of poems, Blue Ruby, due out from FootHills Press this fall, Thomas weaves together themes from her own life with critical events in the contemporary world. An earlier work, Resurrection Papers, is a hybrid sequence of poems and prose poems. In both of these books, her great subject is silence.
“My poetry grew out of deepest silences,” Thomas says, sitting in her funky study in a house just yards from the Schuylkill River in Reading. “My parents divorced when I was five, and my father simply disappeared. No one mentioned him. I didn’t see him again until he was in his coffin.” Like many of us, Thomas grew up in a family in which life-changing events simply weren’t discussed. Her work is not so much a search for her father as a chronicle of her efforts to tell the truth about her life, to break the silence which surrounded her father’s disappearance.
“Blue Ruby” the title poem in the new book, incises the rebirth of the body after long silence. Thomas handles metaphors of fire and blood expertly in a one-sentence poem:
when the blue flame
of buried feeling breaks
the prison of red glass
the glass my father drank from
in that burning, in that breaking
of what must be broken
what must burn
the blue ruby forms
from blood when it touches the air
from the body when it is born.
This feeling that nothing real could be talked about left Thomas with a disconnect between mind and body as if she herself had disappeared. “I felt that I was erased,” she says.“ I felt split between forces of my mother and my father.” Sometimes that split is almost literal. Her poems are full of images of dismemberment:
I felt my flesh pulling off
my bones, pulling me back.
In Resurrection Papers, her technique reflects her subject matter. She works in precise fragments, pushing one image against another to imitate a disassociated consciousness.
each building mirrored glass
reflects New York skyline
wind whistling tower to spire
so she finds herself
flying, grateful and haunted
out over the ocean, wearing all those mirrors
so as not to break.
Like the great Victorian Hopkins, her work is full of sensuous artifacts, but doesn’t feel as if it’s located in the actual world. Here is how Hopkins describes depression:
Oh the mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed.
He has taken the mountains out of the landscape and brought them, with their roots dangling, into his mind and his poem. Thomas’s work has the same effect of disassociation.
When a book is called Resurrection Papers, you look, in the old trope, for a death, a descent into hell and a resurrection. Clearly there’s a death in this book. It happens in a seminal scene when her grandmother, her father’s mother, comes to see the child, Heather. The child’s mother, now divorced from her alcoholic husband, refuses to let the grandmother in. “Then I’ll just pretend she’s dead,” the grandmother replies. The girl, Thomas’s alter ego, lives a posthumous life in a hell of silence and imaginative dismemberment.
But the poet doesn’t offer us easy healing. The key seems to be language, poetry, speech, that which breaks silence. There are some hints of resurrection in the last poem, but they are purposefully enigmatic. Thomas, who loves puns and homonyms, calls the last poem “Resurrection Papers: One Wake.” This could mean one wake as in an Irish wake when relatives and friends gather to mourn the dead. And/or, it could mean one person who is waking up. Thomas speaks here of the “spit of a new language,” perhaps a hint that a new poetic language breaks the silence and gives the spit of new life. The poem proceeds:
You are not your mind you are not your mind you are not
the poem is
not your body
is language an ocean we live coming to
(she was coming to)
The reader wants a happy ending, but Thomas is tentative, only hinting, perhaps, that language is salvation, the life-giving ocean, that poetry slays silence and poetic speech allows the body to finally breathe on its own. At all events, the poem and the book end like this:
hard careful digging hard careful digging hard
Again the grammar allows only an enigmatic conclusion. She doesn’t give us a question mark at the end. Instead, perhaps it’s declarative, only the person who imagines a life like ashes, or lives a life like ashes can do the hard careful digging into that life that Thomas clearly has, to bring it into poetry.
Thomas’s poetry is brilliant, hard-edged, technically accomplished. She won a Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry for it. The poems in the new volume are more direct than those in Resurrection Papers, although all her work requires some digging in order to uncover the meaning. Once understood, however, it’s unforgettable.
Forthcoming September 2007 Blue Ruby from FootHills Press
Resurrection Papers Chax Press Tuscon, Arizona 2003
Anne Kaier’s poetry has been published in numerous journals. Her book of poems InFire, is available from Skintype Press, Philadelphia, PA (2406 Pine St. Philadelphia, PA 19103). She participated in The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and has been a Featured Poet at the Free Library of Philadelphia. With a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard University, she teaches literature and creative writing at Rosemont College; Arcadia University; and Penn State, Abington.
Works by Anne Kaier
Home with Henry: A Memoir