– review by writer and blogger Maggie Lane
Most books of poetry are like shuffled playlists: where you begin and where you end are beside the point. But anyone reading Terry Blackhawk’s latest collection at random will miss one of the many pleasures of the book. The intricate order of the poems in The Light Between unfolds a progression of healing as intimate as any memoir.
Blackhawk’s divorce after a 30-year partnership sets the book in motion, or rather deposits Blackhawk in one of those “in between” times so unnerving in a culture that marks time with status updates. In between jobs, in between symptom and diagnosis, in between youth and old age, and in this collection, in between losing love and finding it again, are uncomfortable spaces but spaces ripe for discovery and for poetry. The in-between is where Blackhawk eventually finds the light in the collection’s title.
The book begins with an empty bed and an unrequited desire for the lover who vacated it. Desire turns to rage in “Medea—Garland of Fire,” a searing re-telling of the Greek sorceress’ revenge on the man who abandoned her for a younger woman. Hell-hath-no-fury finds a fresh voice in Blackhawk’s hands:
These days I think emptiness
enrages most, flesh that cannot forget
its hunger turned to anger, blown
useless petals. Among my people
women have ways of remaining
supple with desire. Why do you scoff
at these offerings?
A cultural distaste for sexual passion in “women of a certain age” bestows on Medea a useful invisibility in her plot to murder Jason’s young bride:
I will put on a shawl
of smoke and haze. Drape myself
in the gray peace of the dove.
I will be, quietly, like ashes
But Fatal Attraction this is not. Sadness, not rage, is the weightiest emotion of the book’s early poems. Everything reminds Blackhawk of her loss, of the years/he tossed like fish, back into the water: the pulling down of her old roof (Who’d have thought a slow rot/ would have such fervor to it), a hearing loss, empty cicada shells, even household bills (the mute/ mail you forward, terse notes of interest to be paid).
Her sadness never turns mawkish or self-indulgent. Bitterness is not her stock in trade. She observes her own emotions as she observes the birds that animate the poems (Blackhawk is a birdwatcher): patiently, precisely, with wonder and a poet’s relish of the extraordinary.
Her progression towards healing unfolds seamlessly, naturally. In “The Eggplant” she sweeps a shriveled eggplant from behind a cabinet and sees in it a mirror of her own circumstance:
It had transformed
Silently, and without obvious flourish,
Until I poked around and found the beauty of it.
Blackhawk sequences her poems with the care of a master gardener, positioning poems to foil and highlight each other. The eggplant poem is followed by “I Think of My Ex Husband Standing in the Sunlight” in which a frozen tree frog she keeps on her desk becomes a stand-in for her ex. (A novel technique for dealing with those who hurt us.) The juxtaposition of the two poems says what she will not: she has evolved, but he’s frozen in time, unable to change.
The Light Between closes with a reversal of the empty bed that began it. In the playful “Imagining Billy,” an unlikely sex object lounges in her bed: poet Billy Collins in flannel pajamas. Collins is too busy writing poems to engage her desire. But this poem is followed by the full-fledged erotic coupling of “Into the Canopy” and a sweet love poem, “Not Wafting but Dofting,” light as the air that flows through it.
The movement from pain to healing forms the arc that structures the book, but The Light Between is more than a recovery memoir to be gifted to the newly divorced. Vivid, precise language, not divorce, powers the book; and more so than lost love, birds populate its pages. In fact, she can’t seem to keep birds and all manner of flying things—angels, skywriting planes–out of her poems. The freedom of bird flight, the art of bird song, the beauty and variation of bird species all captivate her imagination and give occasion to many beautiful images. But it’s the elusiveness of birds that figures most in this collection. Birds come and birds go, like love, like the muse itself.
Award-winning Terry Blackhawk lives and writes in Detroit. She is the founder and director of Inside/Out, a writer-in-residence program in the Detroit school system. The Light Between is her sixth book of poetry.
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