Wednesday, November 3, 1999

Spaciously responding

Terry Blackhawk's poems speak to the places within and around her.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Elegant and coy, luminous and tender, of the sky as much as of the earth, Terry Blackhawk’s book of poems, Body & Field, reminds us that, as far as landscapes go, shadows are as important as the light. It’s not just that Body & Field draws intense, at times devastating parallels between people and places, real or imaginary maps and the blueprints of the human heart, but that it reads — as one of the poems confesses — like a "catalog of signs" preoccupied with everyday wonders.

From the minuscule universe which palpitates inside the morning cup of coffee to meditations on the innocent nature of birds, Terry Blackhawk’s poems celebrate — in their quiet, graceful manner — the unremarkable passing of time; peaceful revelations of an anthropological nature; the life span of angels and insects; the small stuff. Precise yet unassuming, metaphors take over ordinary episodes, whenever there’s a need for evasion, whenever the characters who inhabit Blackhawk’s world need to step out and clear their heads.

Inside, there’s the structured, surface reality: the kitchen, the dance floor, the classroom. Outside, the possibilities are limitless, though the perception of the body (the body-landscape, the body-as-beast) changes as sudden afflictions remind us of its frailty.

I refuse to harvest

this news of your illness

floating through your veins

and I cannot see you there

sliced, stitched, stunned

by the doctors’ verdict.

Write you off? Never.

("Twilight Body and Field")

Internalized, refuges turn to sorrows whose antidote is familiarity. Familiar places — a John Deere diner, a junkyard, a school building — chase tragedies away. Familiar images — Van Eyck’s "St. Jerome in His Study," for instance — allow for intelligent excursions through fields of memory, through other people’s stories, through rich layers of paint which suffocate the sadness.

There is no heart to the pomegranate,

a fruit without a core. Beneath the gloss

of Van Eyck’s egg tempera patina, placed

just so atop the jar of snakebite

antidote—

the orb only stands for our struggle,

each dihedral seed in its ruby red cell

bearing ransom from oblivion, brittle

promise from the realm of darkness —

as if a swap of seeds could answer

the death of any daughter.

("Still Life With Migraine")

But most of the time the weather is clear and the day kind. Lovers explore the "sweet depths" of their bodies ("Examining the Heat Exchange Over a Mug of Tea"); mothers forgive, and sons acknowledge the importance of their genetic pool ("Dancing With My Son"). The world is, essentially, at peace with itself, consumed by occasional curiosities, by short trips to Eastern Market, by inevitably comic moments of frustration. Dare we say it? Terry Blackhawk’s poetry makes sense. Sometimes poems are triggered by small events, the flutter of a bird’s wing, the memory of a picture, news heard on the radio.

The Navajo medicine woman gets up

early

to greet the sun. So my radio tells me

and so I stay tuned ...

("The Dawn of the Navajo Woman")

Other times, Blackhawk’s poems study other poems and take delight in an infinite reflection of tiny proportions: a verse discussed inside the frame of another verse. The classroom allows for such an exercise, and Blackhawk uses the space wisely, as her character, the teacher, struggles to understand the judgment of her students.

I watch as he writes

"What I remember about that day is

(here he fills in the date) my first

birthday

(in fact, his tenth) without her" — and I

know I’m reading

an emptiness that has surely become

his polestar, his fixed center, a leaping

beast,

an absence forever present in his sky.

("Reader Response")

The boy misunderstands, appropriates, turns the poem into a furious personal memory. He slashes a metaphor, destroys the rhythm of a verse. In the distant landscapes of his imagination, somebody slams a door. But the teacher smiles. She knows. This is, after all, her poem.

Body & Field is a book that takes its time: Images are carved patiently, responsible for their form, radiant, exact. Inside every poem, characters live to the fullest. Though immediate and palpable, Terry Blackhawk’s reality is shaped by the force of the poetic word, as if poetry is not something she does, but something that she is, irrevocably.

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