Thursday, July 05, 2007

Cathy Smith Bowers: New Poems

When I was first getting to know the work of Cathy Smith Bowers, I started, just because I happened to discover a copy in a bookstore, with Traveling in Time of Danger (Iris Press, 1999), her second collection. And, as I often do with new books, I opened it to the approximate middle, and, there, on page 29, came to "L'Art Brut," which found its occasion, as the poem gradually reveals, in a visit to her brother during an illness that would prove, as nearby poems make explicit, ultimately fatal for him. She finds him in his back yard, "making, of all things,/ Candles."

His terrace is pocked with holes
Across which the rays of the yellow pencils
Dangle from their centers makeshift wicks.

All day he has been pouring wax, reds
And blues and greens, the salvaged
Stuff of wings now hardening in each sandy
Grave. I sit on the steps and watch ...

Wait a second, I thought, that "salvaged stuff of wings ..." Where does that ... oh, of course, wings, made with wax, Icarus, Daedalus, the fall ...Wow. How beautifully deft. There are many other such lovely moments in the poems in that collection, where the elegant tapestry of her blank verse suddenly effloresces, light shining from the very fibers of her language, conjuring up by quick allusion larger dimensions, and the worlds of analogy within which the poems move.

In this selection, she explores some of the same landscape of loss that the poems in Traveling traversed - and versed - before it. Whatever the formal ground, she brings rich intelligence and real fire and grace to her work.

Some bio: her poems have appeared widely in publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review.

She is a winner of The General Electric Award for Younger Writers, recipient of a South Carolina Poetry Fellowship, and winner of The South Carolina Arts Commission Fiction Project. She served for many years as poet-in-residence at Queens University of Charlotte where she received the 2002 JB Fuqua Distinguished Educator Award. She now teaches in the Queens low-residency MFA In Creative Writing Program.

She's the author of three collections of poetry: The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, (Texas Tech University Press, 1992); the aforementioned Traveling in Time of Danger; and A Book of Minutes (Iris Press, 2004). Her craft essay "A Moment of Intensity" is featured in the 2007 edition of Poet's Market.

It's a pleasure to present her poems to any eyes that might here find them.


All Adverbs, Adjectives Too

Odd thing, I thought, 

for a teenager to say she

despised. The hair-do

of the girl at the table

next to us I might have

understood. Or the jock

who yesterday between

biology class and history

took back his ring. But why

this sudden announcement

at the height of our weekly

outing over burgers and shakes?

I was not her blood,

but that oddest of creatures,

soft surrogate body designated

step, the woman loyalty to her

mother required that she

hate. How else, in her logic,

to remind me of that? I who

worshiped at The Church of God

of Rhetoric, lone walker through

the valley of the shadow of

words. I watched her face drain

pale, the laughter fade, fat heart

of a strawberry stopped midair

between her fingertips and tongue.

And then that cruel pronouncement,

adamant declaration spewed my way

in the midst of our frivolity, sending

me once again to my proper place.

No sooner had she spoken than the light

returned, the strawberry resuming its

journey through her penitent lips.

I held a second longer

the feigned hurt across my face,

vowed never to let her know

I despise them too.

Where’s My Frog?

We worshiped her, Mrs. King,

who was ours for only half the day

that year. Sixth grade, our sights

on junior high and all those kids

from the good side of the tracks

she gave her mornings to

before driving to our dingy

neighborhood for history

and language arts. We

would have done anything

for her, as if having only half

rendered her more valuable,

the way we cherished our always

absent fathers, our mothers dull

in their faded aprons and always

tired, the most wretched

of commodities, being wholly

ours. One day she motioned me

to her desk, Lavon Deese, too,

a girl from up the street who’d

failed two grades, anathema

to all the other teachers whose

lessons she’d slumbered through.

The class was reading to themselves,

heads bent quiet above the hard

and colored history of our state.

We trembled on our way, the wood

beneath our soles creaking with every

step that delivered us to the vase

she’d lifted from her desk, huge globe

filled fresh each Monday with peonies

and mums, blossoms of magnolia

that rotted through the week

as the tests and essays grew,

an ominous Mt. Sinai next to them.

We couldn’t believe she’d chosen us,

to deliver safely down the hall into

the girls’ rest room that vase like

the holy-grail we’d learned about

at Saturday matinée, the sole purpose

of our common life now realized. In

the restroom the sun poured through

like the light in the painting my mother

had got with green stamps, Jesus offering

up his thorn-encrusted heart, the eyes

you could not escape no matter where

you sat. Into the rusty can we flung

the browning petals, their stems now limp,

leaves curled and brittling like the husks

of cicadas that signaled summer’s end, then

into the nearest stall to flush beyond oblivion

the swampy dregs. When we eased into her

hands the empty vase, scrubbed and polished

to an astral sheen, our one breath stopped,

hungry for the smallest wafer of her

gratitude, stunned at what we got instead--

the slitted eye, stuck frown of her face

peering deep inside, those three bleak

words: Where’s my frog? Our knees went

soft, the folds of our single brain calling back

the mysterious ker-plunk we’d heard

at the bottom of the commode

just as I pressed the lever.

The rest of that whole year we suffered

her disdain, we who had killed

her beloved pet, the one she brought

with her each Monday to bask

in the still primordial waters

of that week’s blooms. Dark Lethe

my dreams would conjure, childhood’s

defining act I would bear into the purgatory

of junior high Lavon decided to forgo,

then high-school and on to college,

to the man I would finally marry,

who years later beneath the whirring

fan of an antique shop, would lift from its shelf

a small glass orb, the likes of which I’d never seen,

its surface a conglomeration of tiny holes,

and Look, he would say, as he handed it to

me…a frog. I haven’t seen one in years.

I don’t know what happened to Lavon.


Each morning in my mailbox

or tucked into a quiet cove

of my front porch, another

burden of solace

reminding me again

my husband is dead.

Last week, an oval cardboard box

decoupaged in stars, inside, its nested

offering—a cache of still-warm eggs

gleaned from my neighbor’s henhouse.

Yesterday, a Peruvian prayer shawl,

the warp and weft of its holy weave

climbing, like girders of a bridge,

its sturdy warmth.

And today this handmade flute,

turned and hollowed and carved

by Laughing Crow, enigmatic

shaman of some distant plain.

See its little row of holes

lined up like perfect planets,

as if having not yet learned

the universe had collapsed.

See my lips pressed to the tiny

breathless gape of its own mouth.

As if my lungs could conjure anything.

As if it were the one needing to be saved.


My photo of Cathy was snapped at the studios of WPVM when she appeared earlier this year on WordPlay, the station's program by, about, etc., "writers, their craft and ideas."

Several of these poems appeared in the April, 2007, issue of Rapid River. All are © Cathy Smith Bowers.

Update: Formatting improved, if not totally fixed.

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