by Shelly Love
It is commonplace for people to become so wrapped up in the horrors of the world they forget there is also beauty. It is also common for people to devote so much time and energy focusing on the negative things that have transpired throughout a lifetime, that the kindnesses, thoughtful gestures, and love that were shared are all but forgotten. The human mind, while capable of great feats, is also capable of being our captor or prison as we move through this world. And while the fears and restraints we impose upon ourselves may only be illusions we have created within our own imaginations, the power these illusions wield over our actions and the lives we live should not be underestimated.
Within the poetic tradition, there is a history of poets utilizing the poetic form as a space for philosophic ponderings, such as the ideas expressed above. Poets, such as Emily Dickinson, have blended a love of language, a passion for rhythm and sound, and the metaphysical ponderings of their inner thoughts to create poems sturdy enough to out last the changing tastes in the literary world. But there are also plenty of poets who have attempted to create solid, lasting poems based on his or her own inner philosophical ponderings, and fallen woefully short. Abstraction only works in poetry when it is given a firm anchor, so that the reader does not feel like he or she has been cut adrift in the abstract intangibles of the author’s mind. In order for abstraction to work, it needs a strong metaphor, sensory detail that creates a tangible reality for the reader, or it needs to be wrapped into an allegory or other type of narrative, so that the abstraction can stand on the shoulders of a literary device and solidify, or become “real” in the mind of the person who is engaging with the written work. In so she had the world, poet Deborah Keenan and visual artist Susan Soloman are both dealing with large emotions/ideas in their respective work, but the collection holds together, because the collection as a whole creates a world the reader can see, smell, taste and hear as he or she turns the pages between the covers of this small, yet very beautiful chapbook.
Horizon, the opening poem, begins, “He needed a lot of trees to block the horizon line./ The prairie too suggestive, reeking of ideas and places/ He might travel. He planted poplars first, because they loved/ The wind, then cottonwoods for snow in June, then firs/ In a kind of motionless curve around his property.” Although I do not know the “reeking of ideas and places,” Keenan makes me feel like I do: wanderlust smells like milkweed, purple clover, Aster, and false sunflowers. She shows me the closing of this man’s mind not by telling me he was a man filled with fear, but by trapping me behind his tree line with him. At poem’s end, the man’s life is waning, and he hires a crew to remove the precious shelter he erected with the trees. When at last he is free of his self-imposed exile, “The horizon was blunt and easy on his eyes,/ A line drawn in gold, then green, then charcoal./ A child might have drawn that line, another/ Life night have happened here. “ What that other life may have been, we, and the man, will never know. We do not need to know, but we are able to insert ourselves in this shared experience and make philosophical musings about our own lives and decisions. Keenan succeeds in this, and the eleven following poems, because she creates such a rich space for us, and her poems, to inhabit in the small, square pages of this chapbook.
The accompanying image by Solomon is broken into three acute triangles lying horizontally across the page, separated by thick black lines. The way the painting is broken up gives it the feel of stained glass, especially when the colors are so vibrant, and the lack of clear definition in each “panel” reminds one of old stained glass church panels in the rain. The panel at the top of the painting is a thick coniferous forest, much like those that dominate the Black Hills in South Dakota, the Chugach Mountains in Alaska, or the rolling wilderness of Northern Minnesota. The middle section contains the bough of a fruit tree with ovaries in bloom against the quiet beauty of a cornflower blue sky. The third or bottom panel of the painting houses deciduous trees in leafy green splendor along a gentle slope running toward the lower right-hand corner of the page.
While Soloman’s paintings evoke the images, ideas, and feelings crafted in Keenan’s poems, they also build a world and story of their own. Because of this, the depth of the chapbook is increased, as it allows the reader to develop multiple and deeper meaning from the text. A pit fall illustrated manuscripts often fall into is text or images that do not stand on their own, and rely too heavily on each other. In order for an illustrated manuscript to truly succeed, the written work needs to be solid with out the images and the images also need to be meaningful without the text. When strong poems are coupled with solid visual pieces, the written and visual art in the book are both enhanced and become stronger, creating something more amazing than either would be on their own.
Keenan and Soloman’s collection succeeds on multiple levels, because the large abstractions contained in both the poems and the paintings are firmly anchored in concrete sensor detail and literary devices that allow these feelings and ideas to live in the mind of the reader/viewer. If this chapbook was split into a book of poetry and book of paintings, each would succeed without the other, yet combined they enhance each other while taking on deeper meaning for the person engaging with the work. For those familiar with Keenan’s previous collections, these poems will be a surprising journey on a previously untraveled path, and for those unfamiliar with Soloman’s art, an exiting voyage awaits among the expansive ideas encapsulated on these small canvases.
Poet Deborah Keenan, Visual Artist Susan Soloman
Published by Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013
Written by Shelly Love, former editor in chief, Red Bird Chapbooks