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by Christine Garren
Louisiana State University Press, $16.95 (paper)
In the tiny, unflinchingly severe poems of her third book, Christine Garren evokes a life always at the border of crisis. She is an elegist, a witness to her own slow passing, as well as a mourner for the irretrievable moments of childhood and love. Garren owes her close tracking of nature’s minutiae in part to Emily Dickinson, and she bears some resemblance to Louise Glück in her pensiveness and pessimism. At her darkest—and these poems are mostly very dark—a crushing sense of human isolation is almost forced upon nature, projecting the speaker’s psyche onto creatures and landscapes with the command of a brushfire swallowing a dry field: “we noticed a pale fish among the other / more dominant-colored ones. We could almost see / its organs through its flesh— / and as we were young we watched it carefully—and understood / its place / as outside the others.” Elsewhere, “the stab of daffodils in the middle of nowhere” is “like a chest pain.” When the speaker of these poems does find consolation, it is perceived with a similarly stunned sharpness of vision, as when, in a moment of ecstasy with a lover, “the birds were suddenly white and yet the same.” At times Garren’s uncompromising vision seems constricted rather than sharpened by this fierce affinity for the tragic, as though when she looks out of herself she does so only through a tiny aperture, so trained on darkness that she omits too much of the light: “Tell the story when your father said he felt / you should drink less / . . . / when your son was born from her tiny waist / when you built your first house / when the first chest pain put it / on a tiny pinhead point.” In this way whole lives are reduced to their worst moments. That said, Garren’s poems evidence profound sensitivity to a world that many don’t see, or from which they avert their eyes, and at her best, she offers powerful empathy and an arresting rendering of humanity’s relation to nature. Her work is too little known and deserves a wider readership.
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