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Review: Carolyn Hembree Rings in the New Year ‘For Today’

By Tomas Maldonado

It’s New Year’s morning and my head is spinning. Not only because of the moderate amounts of Sake that I sipped on the night prior but also because of the cold morning air seeping through my window above. The draft has caused me to feel congestion and loose phlegm, and my throat horribly itchy. I know exactly how to remedy it. After a quick stretch, cold water on the face, and brushing my teeth, I plop down on the sofa with a hot cup of ginger tea and a digital poetry book for a book review. Upon reading the first few poems, I realize I’ve discovered something remedying yet spiritual.


Book cover of a home supported by stilts in a river.
Photo: Carolyn Hembree via www.carolynhembree.com

Carolyn Hembree’s poetry collection is thoughtfully titled For Today. Published this year by Louisiana State University Press, ten poems, of various shapes and sizes, spanning four sections all within 108 pages. I enjoy the simplicity of the layout, each poem packaged into its Roman numeral section, showcasing the deep thought process put behind each placement. It reminds me of the excitement of my youth whenever I bought ACDC or Black Sabbath; the sheer joy of the album cover, the artwork, smelling the freshness of the record, exploring the names of the songs, carefully studying the liner notes, the whole experience of discovering another’s art. I feel that same nostalgia minus the ability to bury my nose in the pages and give it a good whiff.


As I read through poem-by-poem, what promptly catches my eye is the intrinsic use of poetic devices especially when it comes to playing with form and embedding wordplay. The first poem, Some Measures, divided into seven numbered sections, is a perfect example of Hembree engaging with verse and wittingly applying anaphora. The first lines begin, “Less of, less often, I see you still, free head.” The ending first lines state in italics, “Like this swain song fading, you love your grief.” Next, the second part of the poem begins, “Swan songs we liked fade in. You loved your grief.” This pantoum-like repetition continues until the end of the seventh part of the poem brings the reader back full circle to the first lines of the poem, “Less of, less often, I see you still, free-” with the word “head” emphatically omitted. For some reason, I can feel my headache fading…

 

Another sublime use of anaphora occurs in August 29, 2005 – a harrowing reference to Hurricane Katrina. Each line takes me back to my Texas days during that horrible catastrophe. The imagery perfectly blends objects with substances as we follow the pony of South Derbigny floating through the aftermath repeated throughout enjambment and purposeful pauses of reflective white space. I can see Louisianians, coming in droves, by bus, by plane, into Dallas, Ft. Worth, Austin, and El Paso. I can feel the unsaid of the people who had to experience such refuge and desperation as our government did nothing. My nose begins to clear…

 

Then, I notice the heavy alliteration combined with false rhyme found in Nocturne, “I’ll have my drink. What’s got my get may get me too. / Play dead, each day a shallow sucking wound.” I have to go back and, instead of reading it in my mind like before, I re-read out loud delighted by each sound of the letters dancing around in my tongue and teeth: the g, the m, the d, the s. I have to admit, the false rhyming of “too” with “wound” tastes good and it’s genius. I think of Eminem’s wonderful violation of twisting the homophones “orange” with “door hinge” or T-Pain fun-lovingly stretching the syllables of “mansion” to rhyme with “Wisconsin.” My throat is no longer itchy…  

 

But there’s more. In the five haikus of Five Haiku, each wonderfully separated by the Tilde symbol, Hembree makes the raunchy and sexual sound soothing and spiritual ending with a haiku reminiscent of Japan’s Zen temples, “glad to still smell / wet magnolia I fuck / outdoors like the young.” I can almost, in an erotic sort of way, see the nakedness of a couple, smell them, feel them, even hear them. I suddenly no longer feel sick…

 

In April 2020, I’m delighted by the epigraph gracing the poem, “That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.” It’s Chaucer, from the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales. I remember the line from my days of memorizing tomes of English literature during my undergrad. The full verses go, “And specially, from every shires ende / Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende, / The hooly blissful martir for to seke, / That hem hath holpen whan that they were seke.” In the original Middle English spelling, the word “seke” – pronounced “say-kah” - is both a homograph and a homophone but polysemous in meaning; both are our now Modern English “seek” and “sick.” The poem itself is a one stanza form broken into twenty-six lines in what seems to be a reference to life and spirituality during the Pandemic, and how New Orleanians came together. Too many great lines and references to quote but perhaps my favorite is the mental image of the metaphor, “Today I walk through another April / shower under April canopies where my thoughts / footnote old lines.” I can tranquilly envision Hembree’s thoughts writing the footnotes of her life juxtaposed with rain falling on canopies. My body is now at ease…


Image of poet with her cat in front of home.
Photo by Camille Farrah Lenain via carolynhembree.com

By the time I reach the final poem For Today, I’m enamored. I read it aloud to hear the experience of something I’m not quite sure that I can handle. It’s sort of like that rickety rollercoaster in Juarez that I’m not supposed to ride because I’m not tall enough, but I ride it anyway. And away I go onto a pastiche of clingy aphorisms experimenting with enjambment and line breaks that sound like the voice of Raymond Babbitt colliding with the poetic style and grace of Finnegan’s Wake. Words I need to Google moving left, then right, then white space followed by more white space jumping off of mini-stanzas all codemeshed into sixty-one pages that are somewhere between what-did-i-just-read and i-don’t-know-but-i-think-i-like-it, “Kiddo / remarkable rain cell / stalled squall / Days, no, day, today, Wednesday / I tick the box / Yes, my child may participate in quarterly lockdown drills.”

 

When I reach the end, it’s like I’ve just read something epic like Whitman’s Song of Myself or Milton’s Paradise Lost or even Hafiz’s The Garden of Heaven. My cup of ginger tea is gone, so is my hangover along with the fact that my calendar hanging on the wall needs to be replaced. I shut my laptop and plug it up to charge as a yawn of comfort overtakes me. I feel a well-deserved nap that I won’t take coming on and my apartment is toasty despite the snowflakes reminding me winter is coming late.


As I prepare this book review, that verse from Chaucer lingers in my head once more. I think about how sometimes our minds can help in the healing process when we’re sick. Even more how sometimes when those minds are stimulated by the written word, writers come like martyrs to help us find that which we didn’t know we were seeking.

 

· Visit Carolyn Hembree’s homepage at: https://carolynhembree.com/ 

· Follow Carolyn Hembree on X at: @CarolynHembree

· Buy For Today at Louisiana State University Press: https://lsupress.org/9780807181423/for-today/ 


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About the Writer:

Thomas Maldonado is a Mexican American creative nonfiction writer and poet who teaches English for Academic Purposes, Intensive English and English Composition at his local community college and university in South Central Minnesota. He uniquely blends creative writing in his TESL courses while mentoring his multilingual students as they journal their writing experiences via poetry and creative nonfiction. When he’s not taking long walks through Kampala, he’s making snow angels in Mankato.

 

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