Poetry So Good It Will Make Your Head Explode

Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotype_(cropped)Do you remember Emily Dickinson’s test  of a poem?

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.  Is there any other way?”  

If there is, I can’t think of it. Although, truth be told, it had been years since I had thought much about Emily’s test or read much poetry beyond what I shared with my daughter. Then, a little over a year ago, I answered a post on the online bulletin board of my alma mater. A fellow alum was launching a literary magazine website and seeking volunteers to help. I answered her ad, and soon, to my unending surprise, found that I was the co-poetry editor of the Lyon Review: The Literary Magazine for Alumnae and Faculty of Mount Holyoke College.  Like I said, it had been years since I’d given much thought to grown-up poetry; the attention that a poem demands seemed way beyond what I could muster as a working mom. But I decided to push beyond my workaday zone and see what happened.

Since then, Emily Dickinson’s test has come back to me many times. If I feel like the top of my head has been blown off, I know that is poetry.  And I like the feeling.

One poet whose work has left me feeling that way is Sandra Kohler.  Kohler’s poetry has been appearing in print for at least 35 years, in publications such as The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review and The Colorado Review. A New Yorker by birth, she was graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1961 and eventually went on to Bryn Mawr College for her master’s degree (1966) and doctorate (1971). In between writing poetry and raising her son, she taught literature and writing everywhere from elementary school to college. She and her husband now share a two-family home in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with her son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter and grandson.

Improbable Music CoverHer most recent book (her third) is titled Improbable Music, and it was published by Word Tech Communications in 2011. A previous book, The Ceremonies of Longing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003) won the AWP Award Series in Poetry. In 1985 and 1990, she was the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship in Poetry awarded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Sandra’s poems are beautifully wrought, stark and elegant and they tell moving, sometimes painful stories about people we all might know. 

Here is one of my favorites, titled “For Bernice, Irene and Regina.” You can find more at http://thelyonreview.com (search for Sandra Kohler). Read it and see for yourself if the top of your head feels like it’s still on.        

For Bernice, Irene and Regina

For years I’ve listened to the three of you
reminisce, daughters of a mother who hung
green shades on the windows, not starched
white lace, never baked any of you a birthday
cake, let one of you (you argue about who)
go to school wearing mismatched socks. She
was the mother-in-law I loved for not caring
who had telephoned who last, for her lifelong
passion for “her flowers,” for her detachment
from her children’s lives, her distant tender
attachment to my son, her youngest grandchild.
You were the women whose womanhood
frightened me, brilliant practitioners of its arts.
Your spotless windows opened into a life I
couldn’t maintain: the curtains washed and
starched and ironed to a perfection nothing in
me could reach. I didn’t understand how you
were driven by memory: the childhood houses
of your friends, islands of order and decorum
home didn’t offer, led each of you to a vow,
the veil of a sisterhood your mother flouted
innocently; for your children, you would be
the mother your childhoods longed for.

You invented your roles from a model
of how not to play them; I had no model.
Motherless at ten, I didn’t possess the image
memory creates: my sister owned that mother,
staked an absolute claim to her, greedy as any
prospector. She owned womanhood, the art
and nature of it; I was dispossessed, twice
orphaned, once by nature and again by the art
of a sister who fashioned the past, memory,
the real, into a fabrication of her own. And
yet, like her, like you, I have created an idol,
sacred figure, each of us still in thrall to a
presence we invented, absence we mourn.

 “For Bernice, Irene and Regina” copyright © 2012 Sandra Kohler

This post originally appeared on booktrib.com.

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