NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
The White Calf Kicks by Deborah Slicer
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2003)
Reading this collection, what I admire most about Deborah Slicer’s work is her striking use of vocabulary, the careful attention that she pays to sound through spaced alliteration and the sheer energy that sweeps you through her landscapes. The best of these poems positively crackle with static, they make you sit up and pay attention so that you want to return to them again and again.
However, I have one reservation and it is a major one. Lack of detailed explanatory notes with respect to some of the poems does this talented poet a severe disservice. For me, there were more than a few poems in this collection that were inaccessible. Despite several readings, I could not find the key to unlock their meaning. Maybe that will come later. Sometimes it does. As for the rest. I am stunned by their beauty and the quality of their craft.
If you have never read any of her work before, a good starting-point is Ars Poetica where philosophy and poetry meet head to head. Language is the philosopher’s “headache” but it is also the poet’s “itch”—the philosopher tries to pin it down with precision but the poet has the freedom to let it inhabit all manner of description. Seeing the threaded roots
from living too long
in the same dollop of dirt
she transfers a plant from its tight enclosure into the waiting earth—
the tomato plant
relaxes into a new geometry:
down into the composting darkness.
up into the light…
Before long, these descriptors will become
a supernumerary of yellow blossoms.
At least, that is my reading of the poem.
The poems which worked best for me in this collection were ones like Having It Out with Life over Breakfast; Highline Cosmology, Montana, and Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday. This is not only because they are well-honed but also because they are accessible.
In Having It Out with Life over Breakfast the language is lively and jumpy—right from the start and the sound it produces is pleasing to the ear:
Wet snow batters the winter plains like catfish fillets,
as sleet skids
across the tin roof,
The heady mix of long and short lines is used to good effect and careful attention is paid to voicing.
Make your biscuits like you used to—with the grape jelly grimace,
eggs over easy. Tabasco
so they squawk…
There is a lot of yelling and anger going on in Highline Cosmology, Montana:
I want my dead back ……….
where have you put them?
By contrast, Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday is a poem of great contentment and domesticity where Slicer shows us just how well she can paint a scene in words. The cameo of the little girl riding her bike up and down a muddy track after Sunday lunch could almost be framed and hung in a gallery.
I Loved the Black Cat is another very accessible poem. There is the shadow of a man inside the house who shows his fear of the storm but the black cat, by contrast, is fearless:
When thunder cracked its thirty knuckles, helved its three free fists, when rain spat
sideways at us—
Again, there is the long line followed most effectively by a couple of short lines.
The focus and concentration that she gives to her poems is often reflected in their titles which set a particular subject in a certain place on a particular day or time of the year.
In Sunflowers, Wyoming there is a moment of reflection. Slicer sees a red balloon joy running in front of her truck on the highway and asks herself:
Have I been this reckless with my life?
It was not always so. The sunflowers that hang their collared heads remind her of a time of humbleness rather than a time of daring.
Many of the poems in this volume are distinctly rural in tone. They are dark and mysterious, thought-provoking and honest. In Wilson’s Cows—Glass Hollow, Virginia, October there is a hardness in the imagery that disturbs the equilibrium. It makes one eager to learn more about what is only partially revealed.
As Wilson calls his stragglers
he’s hunched on his muddy four-wheeler,
with a blue cap on top, watching
his folded hands,
like a loaf of brown bread in his lap,
the cripple little terrier beside him, rapt
as a cocked pistol.
In her work, grief and joy often sit uneasily side by side. Cancer: Two Lyrics is a case in point. After the anger of the first lyric—a strikingly unusual and provocative word when used in this context—comes the unexpected humour of the second one—“After Your Mastectomy” :
Sun reached inside my black sweater today
fumbling all around in there, hurried and
hot. And I remembered you telling me about the first boy
who made you laugh
These are accomplished poems even if some of them are hard to comprehend. They are poems that I will keep returning to because of their imagery, their power to disturb and their extraordinary range of emotional appeal. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author and poet living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His poems and short stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press in 2011.