The Enemies of Glass
by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
Five Prayers of Apples, by Margaret Hoehn, inSPIREd Poetry Series, Spire Press, 532 LaGuardia Place, Suite 298, New York, NY 10122, 2008, 23 pages, $8.00, www.spirepress.org.
For nearly a decade Margaret Hoehn has been quietly accumulating a notable list of awards and publications. Five Prayers of Apples, part of the inSPIRed Poetry Series (Spire Press, New York) is the latest of several prize-winning chapbooks. Her full-length collection The Trajectory of Sunflowers won the 2002 Readers' Choice Award from Backwaters Press, and in 2009 a volume of her collected work, Trajectories, was published by The Legal Studies Forum.
Hoehn practiced law for many years before retiring to focus on her family and her writing. Her training as a lawyer informs her poetry, often through subtle forms of argument, without sacrificing the mystery we love from good poetry.
Here is a short prose poem from the collection:
View from the Window
We say wish or kiss or ocean. Words like these can
build a window in an unlit room. Each calendar
square, a chance to lean out on the new sill of dawn.
A woman pulls back her drapes. It is only the view
of her garden that keeps her from drifting away. A
stone, or a wind saws through the night, rattling
the panes. These are enemies of glass. Say kiss, say
wish. When a window shatters, so much is broken.
I especially like how cleverly the square of the calendar page becomes the sill of a window the woman leans out of—how it is the words—wish, kiss, ocean—that have built the window.
The room is "unlit" but every day provides another chance to start fresh, a new idea, a moment of epiphany. The view that keeps her from "drifting away" is a garden, with all its associative life and death forces. Which is why "When a window shatters so much is broken."
The poems argue for a web of comradeship in nature and in life—a theme announced by the first poem of the book, "What Softly Calls Back"; the first stanza explains that "damaged sagebrush releases compounds to which other plants respond." The poem then extends this discovery:
How the world reaches out
to comfort itself.
even the parts we thought
were mute are more poem
than we could have imagined:
the reeds leaning against each
other in wind; the redwood
sheltering trillium and fern;
the sage calling its splintered
sorrow into the star-shocked
Hoehn is a master of description; her poems see the world through a blend of both naturalist's and painter's eye: "…one must drown / in the sadness and beauty of this world / in order to live…" she tells us. ("Filling with Sky")
There is a quiet sadness to this little book; much precariousness also. Things have edges, undersides, enemies, but the poems are steadfast in their resolve to move forward despite the dangers or the possible consequences—they insist on pursuing a life-affirming vision—like the little girl who puts two canned peach halves together (which her mother has rummaged from discount bins), "As if by will alone, [she] could make this exquisite, / fractured world almost whole." ("Fragments")
The poems here understand the world can never be completely whole, but they keep on trying to add something humane to the mix.
I guess what I like about Hoehn's new book (and about her work in general) is an urgency that communicates itself—the poems are not just words on a page meant to impress or celebritize poem or poet.
Sometimes I have asked poetry students to think of five books of poetry they would take with them if they were exiled to a desert island. Hoehn's is the kind of book I myself might choose.
There is much 'between-ness' here, many different kinds of views, topographies, geographies, distances (between people); there is loss, damage and brokenness, but:
…there's a kind of hallowed
beauty in broken things.
They allow us the courage
to see, with tenderness,
our own fractured lives…
Susan Kelly-DeWitt is a Sacramento poet who teaches at UC Davis Extension. Her recent book of poetry is The Fortunate Islands; she is a contributing editor of Poetry Flash.