nice blog review of The Smooth Yarrow

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Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism 

The Smooth Yarrow by Susan Glickman

Reviewed by Scott Daley


Susan Glickman’s collection of poetry, The Smooth Yarrow, is marked above all by a sense of playfulness. Each piece in the collection gently leads the reader to quite a different place than where he or she began. Glickman plays around with vernacular expressions in “Witch’s Tit,” unearthing layers of history in the seemingly innocuous expression. Visceral imagery of spikes, fire, and disease that proliferates throughout the poem vividly takes the reader back centuries to the paranoid times of witch hunts. In “Rilke Doesn’t Wear Sunscreen,” Glickman plays with mythical imagery. At the beginning of the piece, angels flit about the titular hero, ensconced in a scene of heavenly summery serenity. But all hell breaks loose when he flicks at one of the angels, and a scene of terrifying meteorological chaos ensues. “Why the Wind Scares the Shit Out of Me” spirals off in similarly wild directions and tangents. The poem begins as a list of reasons why wind frightens the speaker, but beautifully bursts its bounds, becoming something much more personal, confessional, and eclectic. We learn, for example, that the speaker’s migraines are caused not only by the wind, for example, but by “feeling guilty”; that she lacks “vanity” and “steadfast concentration,” flees anger, and is “as afraid of [her] own rage as of the wind” (14).

The Smooth Yarrow gradually grows into a beguiling mixture of the primal and the modern, the epic and the everyday. “The Dog at the End of the Bed” stands out as an especially haunting mixture of mundane events and exciting rediscovery (the speaker comments on the boredom of “discussing taxes, teachers, where to buy electronics” but then all of a sudden “it’s new” again) (35). The poem explores the inevitability of death and slow decline with a tone of gentle amusement and serious darkness. “Jacob’s Ladder” is an elegy for Glickman’s father that blends sweetness and solemnity; the poem itself is a “thorny tree” bearing “aromatic fruit” like those lining the “narrow staircase” along which the speaker proceeds over the course of the poem (40). “Jacob’s Ladder” mischievously juxtaposes the swirling immortality of nature with human frailty, a dichotomy represented by the relative sturdiness of the ibexes along the mountain path compared with the speaker’s all-too-human legs, which “tremble with fatigue” (40). The ancient and recent past collides with the heavy weight of the present beautifully here, before looking stoically toward the future.

“Breath” again presents the reader with the gentle intermingling of past and present as a walk in the park causes the speaker’s mind to wander while “time reels back through itself” (43). The poem asserts the paradoxical brilliance of darkness (“it is precisely the lack of sunlight that suffuses the air with something / indefinable; that whets the gold of each leaf, / brightens the blue chicory”), a notion that carries us with hope throughout this seemingly dark piece, wherein imagery of funerals and deaths abounds (43).

“In the Garden,” meanwhile, begins as a catalogue of some of Glickman’s favourite flora and fauna (hummingbirds, bees, monkshood, irises, etc.) before becoming a winding sojourn throughout the titular garden and throughout life. Images of death (“I squished the caterpillars by hand,” announces the speaker), loss (“this winter’s losses” to the garden “were costlier than the gains / but isn’t that always the way?”), balance, and persistence in the face of inevitable failure (“Those we love we try to coax into staying / but it is not their way”) proliferate (49; 51; 58). With “In the Garden,” we get the sense that Glickman views poetry and gardening as similar trades. (Glickman’s personal website prominently features a telling Cicero quotation: “Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing.”) Words and plants must both be cultivated carefully for them to reach their full potential, and writing and gardening both require enormous dedication, patience, and understanding to fully succeed. And while careful pruning is sometimes required in gardens and poetry, the rambling length of The Smooth Yarrow’s final two pieces suggests that sometimes it is best to let poems and plants grow wild and free.

All in all, The Smooth Yarrow is an eclectic, evolving mixture. Like yarrow, an herb often used to stanch the flow of blood from wounds, the collection touches on some painful material but winds up being strangely soothing. Glickman possesses a wry humour and a deep, thorny wisdom that shines through evenThe Smooth Yarrow’s darkest pieces and turns them into playful riffs on the chaos and hidden beauty of life.

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