Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Reflecting on Nostalgia, Loss, and Flight: A Review of Poetry in America by Julia Spicher Kasdorf

There is a universal longing, a part of the human condition, which causes one to reflect on and desire for the past.  Whether a Christmas in which all of the siblings, uncles, and cousins attended and nobody was belligerently drunk, or that great Sunday afternoon movie spent in pajamas on the couch.  We enjoy remembering our families, for better or for worse, and those influences which helped to shape us.   And yet along with that nostalgia is a natural sense of loss, moments that cannot be recaptured or changed.  In Poetry in America, author Julia Spicher Kasdorf writes on the paradoxical longing and loss by interweaving stories of the past and present with self -reflections on her person as an author, artist, mother, and woman. 

In the epigraph, Kasdorf includes two quotes about birds, one from a traditional American folk song and another from Paul Valery, Chose tues (1930) which says “One should be light like a bird, not like a feather.”  She seeks to frame her life and work as active flight rather than passively being blown about by the wind.  And so, she explores issues of her upbringing, the influences of her father and mother, the Mennonite church, related to her value as a woman and her journey of coming into her own.

 Kasdorf appropriately chose Affirmative Action, a painting by Jerry Kearns, for the cover art.   It depicts the tension between a traditional view of women and the desire to rise above those views by portraying a woman dressed and made up as a “traditional” housewife, holding a shovel and digging with fierce determination on her face with a cityscape in the background.  In the same way, Kasdorf too exudes resolve while exploring and wrestling with her own place in relation to those roles.  However, this is not a feminist treatise; it is an honest and intimate look at her own life, as well as life in general, in ways that beg the reader to identify themselves in her poetry. 
In the first poem, “Double the Digits,” she writes about a game of speeding that she and her friends shared as teenagers when they would drive through the back roads of West Virginia.

“When my dad’s Plymouth Fury hit 78,

Weightless, on a crested curve of Route 136
and nearly flew into the grill

of a soda delivery truck, we swerved
toward a pole on Donna’s side, then

were gone before the guy hit his horn.”

She reflects on the dangerousness of this game and the unwillingness to quit until life circumstances and age separated her and her friends.  Her words recall an ancient urge for recklessness and flight, something imprinted into our genes, which again affirms the chosen epigraphs.

“And now, I can barely stay in the lines,

So I keep going back, as if those times,
half a life ago, could explain why some women

get driven by a dumb desire for flight.”

In trying to reconcile the persons that society and circumstances have molded us into being, we often know the responsible and safe way, yet, in moments of crises, seek and yearn for that flight, even if it means careening around 25 mile per hour curves going 50.  In addressing her own history, Kasdorf opens the doors for the reader to insert his or her own stories. 

Though the tension between gender and society lies in the subconscious of the entire collection, a number of poems directly address the sometimes oppressive disconnect that happens when men do not recognize and accept women as deserving of respect.  In several instances, Kasdorf encounters the awkwardness and audacity of chauvinist male antagonists.  In “On and Oregon Mountain I remember the Hebrew Mystics,” she writes,

“a man who’d offered to scrape the frost off from my windshield tried to kiss me awkwardly in the parking lot.” 

 And in “Westmoreland,” she writes about how “an ordinary man, a dentist or someone’s dad,” exposes himself to her in the public library.  
Kasdorf, though does not take the opportunity to decry the evils of our male-driven society, but rather pointedly asserts her disquiet at the incidents and seeks some sense of understanding and learning from them.  In doing so, she does not isolate her readers and speaks truth to a larger audience. 

Poetry in America is not just a single poem within the collection; it is a broad view of our lives.   In this lyrical look at the intimacies of our everyday, the joys and sorrows, work and play, parenthood, suffering, and a slice of literature spoken aloud in a bookstore which sells more coffee than anything else, Kasdorf captures that sense of nostalgia, loss, and flight that the Everyman experiences and feels.  Her writing is funny, strong, poignant, unsettling at times, and is a work worth reading and returning to; a reminder that we could all use a little self-reflection.

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