Poetry Review by Jane Downs
THESE JET JEWELS
Some, like elephants, by Laura Glen Louis, El Leon Literary Press, Berkeley, California, 2010, 28 pages, $15.00 paperback.
Some, like elephants, circle the ground
They sniff every inch the downed, and glean. (p.21)
The elegies and laments in this chapbook explore in musical and unsparing language the deaths of four people who touched Laura Louis’s life deeply. In the title poem, “Some, like elephants,” mourning takes many forms—“Some slash the sky…some walk from town to town…some rage at the moon.” Like the elephants, Louis chooses to circle the specter of death in an unflinching attempt to glean meaning. The elegies offer remembrance and praise but also bring both Louis and the reader closer to an acceptance of what is inevitable and ultimately unknowable.
In the first poem, “An Attempt,” death almost becomes a lover in the opening stanza.
I’d not lived till I’d felt the singe
of Death’s hot breath as He rushed past
Were His touch not so chill a hover
I’d have sworn He was my lover (p.3)
“An Attempt” begins as a formal sonnet then breaks down into forms defined by Louis’s own experience of death and language.
But elegy and lament
—these jet jewels—
have no set arrangement.
For honoring the dead there are no rules (p. 3)
The image of elegy as a “jet jewel” conflates death with something both precious and outlasting human life expectancy. Jewels are made of minerals mined from the earth. They are cut and polished for clarity and brilliance just like the words in Louis’s poems. The image also alludes to the book’s many references to stones beginning with the book’s cover photograph, taken by Louis, where stones resemble speckled eggs. These allusions continue until the final poem, “The hour of the stone.” These stones are in contrast to the motif of wings that first appears in the poem, “Alight.”
Below the hawk
one other sent,
low and sleek,
wings folded arrow, (9)
At the end of “An Attempt,” Louis questions her right to “write of the day/they died, or the way.” She justifies herself by asking another question that can only be answered by her own refusal to believe there is no meaning in death. “If their loss did not intelligence give/why then did we send them forth?”
The longest poem, “A Burden of Wings, Agnes 1984-2005” elegizes a young woman who committed suicide. Told in four sections, the first three parts are the narrative of Louis’s brief and keenly felt encounter with an old boyfriend’s daughter and her reaction to the daughter’s suicide at age twenty-one. This is Louis’s most intensely felt and personal elegy. At their first meeting Louis says,
She came skittering across the road like a waterbird
some massive-winged creature on impossible legs
What use, legs? She was built for soaring (p. 15)
Here, Louis refers to the nature of Agnes’s undisclosed mental illness. Louis’s identification with the young woman is passionately felt. After all, Agnes could have been her daughter.
We fell on one another like long lost kin
Her harp/my piano, my cloth/her clay (p. 15)
Look, we wore the same size glove
Both made things with our hands, for love
Found self in silence, and solace at the fount (p. 16)
The poem shifts to the day of Agnes’s funeral where Louis thinks of Agnes’s illness as “no more visible than the blood in a ballerina’s slipper” and then to Louis’s meditations on Agnes and the day of the suicide. The incantatory final fourth section breaks away from the narrative and takes flight. Japanese tradition holds that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted the wish of health and a long life. The section begins with “Thousand Cranes, the shop was called,” a place where Louis and Agnes shopped. Louis touches on myth, the solace of repetitive work, and the missed opportunity to impart her own wisdom that might have saved Agnes.
six by six by six by six
A thousand folds, a thousand bends
A thousand more, a thousand cranes (p.19)
In the second part of the quartet, a coffin contains Agnes’s body six feet under. The “waterbird” of the first part of the quartet reappears as a paper crane. Louis attempts to contain Agnes’s death between the folds of origami wings. She also gives Agnes the graceful flight of cranes. A thousand folds, bends, and cranes serve to push the boundaries of Agnes’s death outward, not just in flight, but to encompass thousands of deaths. The poem ends with Louis’s regret that “I know how to fold the crane. I/ could easily have taught her.”
Louis’s poems contain tenderness, honesty, and a gentle humor. In the final poem she ruminates about times she escaped her own death.
nearly stepped into the path
of a MACK, walking
while reading Abe Kobo
Ah—to be undone by truth
and beauty (Really,
not a bad way to go) (p.28)
In the last stanza of the book Louis says, “…let me not die from a lack/of heart, or of a failure to communicate.” By writing this book Louis assures that this particular death will not come to pass.