Who do we call in times of trouble? Our creator or our mother; our best friend or spouse? After we choose, then what words do we use to call? In her new poetry collection from Iris Press, Cathy Smith Bowers uses both sacred and secular language, common and explicative terms, to articulate the complexity of human living.
A seasoned Bowers reader recognizes the love of language-play as characteristic from her publishing history: since her first book, The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, Bowers has enjoyed praise for her diction. Her last collection, The Book of Minutes (Iris Press, 2004), largely experiments with a short poetic form called the minute. But, in The Candle I Hold Up to See You Bowers returns to variety in form –in free verse, loose couplets and quatrains, in longer and more brief poems– and turns her concentration more fully again to individual words. Each section of the book leans into her purpose, advertising with a select vocabulary: rhetoric, lexicon, and “Syntax Symbol Diction.” The poems of the book brim with letters and instructions and lessons and captions and utterings.
“How it can turn on you,” the poet remarks in “Language: A Sentimental Education” as the poem rolls through a loose metathesis with the words “poked,” “boll-weevil,” and “pencil” to tell of the elementary classroom trauma and the embarrassment felt
as I lifted my shirt for her to see,
the whorls of my primordial wound
reddening where his eraser had gone.
By the end of the poem, the word “god” disappears from “Good dog.” Other poems in the same section of the book explore the meaning and origin of words like “frog,” abattoir, “sane” and “health.” These experiments elucidate concepts both naïve and grave. Bowers newly defines other words, like “slut” and “family” and “despise,” found in the section An American Family, to show the nuance involved in a simple slur, a traditional concept, and an active verb.
The poet calls out to God in the first eight poems of the book, using notarikon, the rearranging of Hebrew letters, yet leaves the reader without a pronounceable name. Referencing Rabbi Yehuda Berg, Bowers takes the first eight of the 72 permutations from Kabbalah, to illustrate various aspects of God: the miracle-worker, the creator, healer, are evoked, alongside Lizzie Borden, Emily Dickinson, Mary of Medjujorge, and Ora Snipes, the neighbor who scared the children on Halloween night.
As she reported over the phone in late June, Bowers, when writing those first eight poems, intended to construct her own book, in poetry, regarding the 72 names of God; “but, then I decided that God had too many names!” Yet in a way, the last eight poems of the book call out to the underworld, first addressing the god of that world who has been freshly stripped of the title of planet. Poems for Kate Berryman, Nick Flynn, Maxine Kumin compare details of suicides and ask after those left in the wake of death.
“Solace” and “Whistle-Speak” use a flute and hand-call to reach across space and time to bring comfort and connection, to perhaps save the caller, or
Find, in a crowd, the husband
You’ve somehow lost.
Professing her philosophy, Bowers says that “our major task in writing a poem is to shine a light on a moment of intensity.” The lights in this collection – 33 candles, so to speak – illuminate the dark mysteries of family and God and personal journey and, most importantly, death and life-after-death, making a progression out of darkness— a journey past adolescence into maturity. Bowers’s experimentation in language helps us define our relationships and sentiments, with words, with people and with God. Additionally, the collection reminds the reader of the value of questioning—or calling out—to make sense of the world: it reminds the reader that “the burning” is what matters – the questioning and wondering and figuring matters most when we work to really make sense of darkness. It is the candle we hold up to see.
Books by Cathy Smith Bowers: The Candle I Hold Up to See You - Iris Press, 2009 | A Book of Minutes - Iris Press, 2009 | and Traveling in Time of Danger - Iris Press, 1999 | The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas – Iris Press, 1998