Saturday, November 8, 2008

Leaning In

Review by Michelle McEwen

Norah Pollard, Leaning In
Antrim House, 2003
98 pages

The way her father had a way with handling horses, Norah Pollard, the son of John “Red” Pollard (Seabiscuit’s jockey), is just as talented when it comes to handling words. Most of the poems in Leaning In are long poems that don’t weaken once they near the finish line. Her poems are sturdy and well-built— strong from beginning to end.

Although this book is broken into three sections (Gathering, Scars, and The Museum of Natural Art), all of the poems could easily fall in the "Gathering" section because Leaning In feels like a gathering— a gathering of memories, a gathering of readers up against her bosom and letting them in, but more so it feels like a gathering around a kitchen table (the big, long, farm variety) with Norah Pollard at the head of that table telling us about her father, her upbringing, her life as child as well as an adult. And we don’t hesitate to lean in— listening with unbreakable attention and hanging on to the author’s every word. In the poem “Gathering,” Pollard tells us about her father as if to say we don’t know the half:

“…Daddy is back from the track and drunk like
murder and I hide from him, crouching low
beside the piano with my fingers in my ears.

…He is stomping the tout to death with
his boots— three running steps, a leap,
both feet on the wall at shoulder level,

…Overhead, the lamp falters, brightens, falters.
He makes sheet lightning.
Mother and Auntie are darting in and out,
gathering the breakables in their arms.”

In “Dragonslayer,” Pollard tells us about her father again. This time, she lets us in on an inside joke. “Dragonslayer” is a poem about her father pretending he has killed a snake, but actually the snake has run off on its own—

“He stomps his kangaroo boots,
his thin body leaping and stamping.
He snorts, he growls.

…He turns and says, ‘That hairbutted snake
won’t bother you no more,’ …

…My mother calls from the backdoor.
I go to her. ‘Did he kill the snake?’
‘No, momma,’ I whisper, ‘the snake already was gone.’
She laughs and covers her mouth …”

Here, I found myself laughing along with the mother. The dragon slayer is no dragon slayer after all, but they (mother and daughter) go on and let him think he is. In the poem “How Things Were,” she tells us how things were when times were good, but not quite—

“When he played his harmonica
he’d hunch over his lonely bony body
and blow “Old Black Joe” into the parlor
while Cougar the cocker spaniel, his head
thrown back like an operatic,
howled his agony or his ecstasy,
who could tell?

…And that was how things were with Daddy—
all mixed up and no one knowing ever
whether to laugh or cry or hide under the bed.”

We nod at this; we understand this walking-on-eggshells feeling and empathize; we scoot our chairs in closer to the table and wait for more and she gives us more. This time, in the poem “Wild Thing,” she treats us like BFF’s— telling us intimate details:

“My first time, in Eddie Gemza’s pool with Eddie,
out under the stars and liquid as fish,
we played until he slipped it in without a warning.
So I bit his finger to the bone— he lost the tip.

…And it was wild to feel so wild and satisfied,
to taste of blood and know just who I am.”

In “Kiss,” we are told about the time when she was “the high schooler awkward and shy coming from church in the two-toned DeSoto with the clank in the rear.” Also, in “Kiss”—

“He was the gas pump boy
at the Texaco station who said
he needed to hear
the clank in action …

…He shrugs from the shirt
with the Texaco star …
His sweating body glistens
like a molted thing, and
there’s a port wine stain
like a Maybelline kiss
high on his thigh near his cullions.”

However, intimate though they are, we don’t blush. We don’t blush because Pollard is so graceful in the telling of the intimate thing. I found myself stuck on stanzas and re-reading them before moving on.

Suggested to me by a poet/library assistant to help me get over a bad bout of writer’s block, Leaning In was just the type of book I needed— with its long, well-written poems, I was inspired for days.

Leaning In can be purchased here: