Order from Poetry Harbor
P.O. Box 103
Duluth, MN 55801
To read “The Hive” by Francine Sterle in this issue.
See our feature on The White Bridge
Another review by J.C. Todd online at www.frigate.com
The White Bridge A chapbook by Francine Sterle
Poetry Harbor. 44 pages. $5.95 paper. ISBN 1-886895-17-1
***** Clarity and economy of image. Fierce intelligence. Diction that flenses the language, strips it of the glitter of ornament and the muddle of unexamined association. These are foremost virtues of the poems in Francine Sterle’s limited edition chapbook, The White Bridge. In the title poem Sterle poses the question central to the collection: “What does your life look like from here?”, a question that directs the attention to habitat, to the world of natural occurrences, both wild and domestic. The poems underlain by this inquiry are, for the most part, poems of the northwoods and flinty mountain ranges of Minnesota, regional in the best sense, in that they hold mineral, vegetable and animal (including humans) in a valence of equal worth, one informing the other. Yet Sterle’s imagination is not merely startling in its geoscientific specifics, it is deeply human in the urgency of its desire: in “Homecoming,” she writes of a starfish with a broken ray, “I examine the sucker-tipped/tube feet, the stiff, spiny skin. . . ./ I kneel down/ put my mouth to the star/as I would to the body of a man.” The simile makes clear that the starfish and man are not confounded; rather, by linking the two biomorphically, the speaker sees beyond the circumscription of human pain to an image of hope, a fifth ray “. . .who can no longer bear/the pain of the world, who is busy/making a new star from a broken piece of arm.” These lines, better than any words that would abstract the action, describe the imaginative transaction of the poems and their generative impulse to enter what is broken and, of the union, make somewhere new—a here fully aware that “everything that moves/leaves a story. No story/can exist by itself..” (“Deciphering the Alphabet”)
***** The action of the poems is not pathetic fallacy as Ruskin described it, whereby nature is imbued with human feeling, nor is it pastoral nostalgia but rather a more profound homeopathy in which the speaker regards herself as part of her natural surroundings. Thus, many of the poems, although cast in first person, concern not the self, but an almost magical awareness of a self so embedded in the natural world that interaction is metamorphic, slipping from human to animal to human in the manner of Native American shape-shifting or the metamorphic escapes and appearances of the Welsh Mabinogion. Often the transformation occurs with winged creatures, as, in the near-ko’ans of “The Ear of the Owl,” a woman offers her body “. . .to the owl,/uncovering my soft throat,/ my white feathered breast.” In “The Hive,” however, the interpentrated subjects are human and bee, and the transaction more enigmatic and, perhaps, more like parallax in that the speaker’s changing point of view curves the arcs of the separate stories inward toward each other to meet at a point not quite seen but intuited. At first denying identification with the bee, the speaker asks, “Does it expect to soothe me/when it kisses my hand?”, crediting the bee with human expectation, a surprising reversal of pathetic fallacy. In section 4, their stories begin to draw toward each other: “Cradling its velvet-coated body,/ I noticed my own lifeline,/an arrrow underneath it,/ while outside, toiling bees/ crisscrossed in the sun,”, and in sections 6 and 7, love’s agony has caused the speaker to see her lover as an animal: “Look at what you’ve become/a bear,” and herself as “inhabited by bees,” a hive from whose “pursed mouth/a single word/works its way out. . ..” The linkage of stories continues; both species ultimately connect in an act of mercy that clarifies the speaker’s memory of her lover: “the withered petal/the flower didn’t feel/when it fell.”
***** But this explication does not truly satisfy the marvelous valence in which the stories, human and bee, combine with each other. More resonant with the extraordinary poetic action of “The Hive” is a story told by poet Valerie Martinez (Absence, Luminescent) concerning a storm she experienced in Swaziland. Returning to the village where she lived, she asked a student, “Was there a hail storm here?” The student responded, “A small man in the next village died suddenly.” Martinez said that she understood and believed the connection between her question and the student’s response, between the storm and the death, but that was in Swaziland. It was harder to understand, she continued, in North America, where the traces of the relations between spirit world and material world have been erased. In the spare, evocative poems of this eloquent chapbook,The White Bridge, Francine Sterle has restored the webbing of the natural world in which spirit and human reside; she has crossed over the white bridge and entered the honeycombed hive. I look forward to her full-length collection, Every Bird Is One Bird, co-winner of the Editor’s Award, forthcoming in 2001 from Tupelo Press.