Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Long-Overdue Review

A Walk Through the Memory Palace
by Pamela Johnson Parker

Winner of the 2009 Qarrtsiluni Chapbook Contest

My apologies, first and foremost, to the lovely folks at Qarrtsiluni that is has taken me so long to getting around to reviewing this chapbook on my blog. It appeared in my mailbox during the chaotic end of fall semester and was ignored during break, along with all other things that seemed like “work”.

However, reading Johnson’s poems is not work, or at least it’s not odious work. The chapbook opens with the poem “78 RPM”, a beautifully observed narrative about summer, desire, and music. This first poem sets itself up in short 3 line stanzas, and many of the proceeding poems follow the same format. The second piece is a two-part poem called “Tattoos” (Johnson utilizes multi-part poems throughout the book), and while the poem feels rather list-heavy to me, the images are enduring and vibrant. The chapbook takes up themes of art quite frequently, whether in “First Anniversary: Reading Russian Literature” or “Reading Keats in a Japanese Garden”, a Matisse painting in “Engendering: For Two Voices”, or the speaker’s own poetry in “Unreal Gardens Without Toads in Them, or, Last Year’s Journal, This Year’s Yard.”

For me,the greatest beauty of this book is not in the poet’s academic intelligence (though it gleams fiercely throughout and enhances each poem) but in the equally profound intelligence she demonstrates toward the human mind and heart. The final poem, the long six-part “Breasts”, demonstrates not only an understanding of the body, but also of the speaker; as a prepubescent girl, she thinks “Some day I’ll need a bra, some/ Day I’ll sag like Gran.// Not me. Not now” while as an adult, and a mother, when faced with her sister’s diagnosis of advanced breast cancer, she concludes “Neither/ Of us will say cancer,/ Neither of us// Mentions our mother./ Daughter, I hold you tighter/ to my breast.” And my favorite moment of the chapbook comes at the end of "First Anniversary: Reading Russian Literature" -- after describing the poor young couple celebrating their first anniversary on a swelteringly hot day, the poems ends "You wish, like/ A child at Christmas, for snow; I loved you/ Hopelessly is all I remember of Pushkin."

While certain images and themes recur throughout the book - art, water, fish, flowers and plants, desire and death and change – I didn’t always feel that the poems connected to each other or came together as a cohesive chapbook whole. “Some Yellow Tulips”, about a Holocaust survivor, and the final long poem about breast cancer, are both wonderful poems on technical and emotional levels, but did not fit the same mood as the rest of the book. Overall though, the poems are strong and this is a chapbook well worth your time and money. It is available online or in print form. Also, be sure to check out the other cool stuff going on at qarrtsiluni, the online literary magazine.

No comments: