David Herrle reviews Tracings by Carolyn Howard-Johnson
published by Finishing Line Press
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Carolyn Howard-Johnson's essay writing is usually straightforward. Her fiction (or autobiographical fiction) is usually enjoyable for its storyish touch, glimmers of deeper psychology, and "accessibility" (to use that dreadful word in a rarely fitting and decent connotation). But when I read TRACINGS, her debut poetry collection, I didn't recognize Carolyn. Initially, that is. As I plunged into three, four, six pieces, I realized that this, too, is Carolyn - a Carolyn I just hadn't been introduced to yet, a Carolyn who I suspect is more familiar to Carolyn herself than her essay/prose manifestations. In poetry she is less guarded, more esoteric and abstractly expressive, and...sexier.
Yes, sexier. (It takes bravery to note such an aspect, so put a star on my forehead.) Sometimes language itself (even apparently plain or innocuous language) can unfold in such a way that it slightly arouses or implies an amatory stirring. Reading Carolyn's work, at times I'd raise an eyebrow then say to myself, "Must be me, the incorrigible Freud." Not to mention, knowing Carolyn primarily through Web colleagueship/advisement, how could I really know such an aspect unless she spelled it out?
TRACINGS spells it out: beautifully, deftly. Not overt sexuality, mind you. General sensuality, rather, including carnality. This is the quality difference between easy nakedness and a teasing veil, pornography and flirtation, BASIC INSTINCT versus the artful chemistry in NOTORIOUS. I can't say that any of TRACINGS poems are directly sexual, but I ended my second straight-through read feeling acquainted with a lovely, private, affirmative whisper that Carolyn seemed to save and shine and ripen for this book. Sometimes just the ripening time of writing, no matter what about, makes it sexy in itself, moody, stirring. There is sensuality in vivid memories, in vulnerable revelations, even in writing about past sorrow or loss. The divination of sensuality is through worthy language.
Entire poems needn't be stellar in order to impress me. I've little patience for poetry, for one, so I'm much more selective in my appreciation. I'm a fan of winning lines rather than wining poems - and TRACINGS delivers heartfuls! Carolyn proves that she possesses a gift for language. And bursts of smartness and cleverness maintain momentum through the book for the most reluctant reader of poesy.
Note the sensuality of the following clips from various poems: " his voice a song finer than Foster or B'rer Rabbit fables read to me by mother," "...their mandibles working like fingers massaging sourdough," kisses that "stick like early stars to the side of a huge aqua glass bowl," "Mother feeble, a snap bean waiting," "a replica of my birthsky," "pulled taffy, whisked meringue, they melt, struggle to be named," "Utah's lights snuff, quickly, quickly, silver sequins turn dark until the skyline disappears against deep velvet," "scoop pollen from the stamens of holly hocks that grew wild along the barbed wire fences," and (about a smoky L.A. fire) " I, even knowing my home may be charred timbers, see how lovely, lovely this masked inferno is."
Carolyn! What took you so long to spill these?
My favorites pieces are "From the Observation Deck," "Portraits and Poses," "A Reel Life Running," "Perfectly Flawed," and "Whiling Summer's Hours." Whether about a missing, war-stolen father (who "s mells of gabardine and good-byes"), doilies on arms of chairs, or concern for an adult daughter, TRACINGS lives up to writers' duty to articulating "time congealed" in words that transcend era, done and undone deeds, loved ones, private desires and regrets, and identified flesh - without ever leaving them.
- review by David Herrle 12/2005
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