ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Do Oceans Have Underwater Borders, poems by Rose Mary Boehm reviewed by Judy Kronenfeld

These are concise, powerful, resonant, and inventive poems that often body forth extreme or even surreal psychological states and pivotal moments with cinematic vividness and exactitude. These poems feel tough-minded in their concision even when embodying vulnerabilities. Take the nine-line “Held Captive.” The title captures both a psychological state of imprisonment, and, at the same time, the captivation of close attention to “a mercurial / dew drop bending a leaf” of a plant “brave enough to flourish” on the very “prison walls” the speaker has surveyed “for purchase,” a way to climb out. Narrator and reader scrutinize that drop of dew “until it rolls off letting / that heart-shaped leaf snap back / and stretch upwards.” The poem feels like an emblem of the self’s powers of recovery and of freedom within constraint.

Sounds underscore the pithiness of these poems, as assonance and consonance do in this stanza from “Rumours”:

Whispers behind hands, furtive
looks of complicity, greening
tendrils of envy
and ill will.

Metaphors of violence or violation recur.

Dark wings brushed her flailed flesh.
She felt her skin cut away
by a knife so sharp, so fine
it was invisible. (“Schizophrenia”).

“Hotel Beds,” in the surreal and inventive poem of that name are “[c]ustodians of old men’s sins / young women’s sweat, keepers / of dreams, hoarders of calamities,” and can never be washed clean of their “chimeras.” The speaker-ghost occupies such a bed, seemingly with all the “ones who were here before.” Her “hand passes through the knife / which plunges downward / to where [s]he lie[s].” Whatever violence transpires in these beds, it waits, hidden, until “way past lunch time,” when the “maids open my door / with a pass key.”

Violence is linked to the ways of men who “pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss” / and fifty cents for your soul” (“Girl Talk”). The trajectory of the book’s sections seems related: “Escaping the Status Quo,” “Realization Begins,” “Realization Crystallizes,” and “Transcendence.” In “She Had Asked for a Court Order”—the title implying a restraining order not secured—a woman “had chosen / to drive North,” “ice...singing under her wheels / and deep inside her bones.” Startled by “a murder of black,” she veered off the road, “could hear “scratches on metal,” and thinks “he’d be furious again,” and “she wasn’t ready for another beating.” That road ends in the lake in which driver and car sink. Violence menaces in “Nightshift” whose title refers to Mum’s work at the diner, but also to the shift in character of “Mum’s new boyfriend” at night, when he “stayed home / to look after [Annie], he said.” (“[H]e said” almost suggests a post-event recounting—as if during a trial.) As soon as Annie is alone with Mum’s boyfriend, she “doesn’t dare / to move,” and “is making herself small / to squeeze through the gap by the back door.” This language emphasizes that Annie has not yet escaped, but is only thinking ahead. “Then she’ll run until she’s safe / by the troll bridge. / She shuts her eyes tight.” The “troll bridge” marks the surreal turn, and, of course, hardly sounds “safe.” Shutting her eyes is a child’s wishful avoidance of the present menace, rather than an evasive action.

“There Will Not Be a Train” starkly and empathically limns a situation of extremity all too familiar in this moment of refugees and migrants fleeing one impossible situation only to wind up in another. (One can’t help but think of the Middle Easterners lured by Belarus and then stuck at the Polish border where the border police fire water cannon and tear gas at them.) Even the angels are “in handcuffs, / wings clipped / close to the shoulder blades.” And “you wonder whether / they cry for the children, paradise lost or their wings.” At the end this poems slips into the wish-fulfillment voice of a migrant—perhaps a child among the shelled at the closed border—who says (somewhat like Annie in “Nightshift”) “If I shut my eyes / I’ll not be seen.” That voice is followed by a voice from the closed country saying “Don’t let them come in, / they are not welcome.”

Some of these poems of pivotal moments are humorous. In “The Poet,” Boehm pokes playfully at the pastoral archetype of the shepherd-poet-lover by envisioning a “young cowherd” who “recited long words / and sentences to the ruminants / on the high meadows,” and who responds to “‘Why are you herding?’”— asked by the girl who finds him beautiful—with “‘It’s a job.’” “The girl had been too shy to speak / until the cowherd lifted her / with his beauty. / He had been content / until she vexed him / with her question.” No going back!

The dramatic irony in “A Respectable Mother” is somewhat humorous in itself. In this poem “respectability” ultimately constrains even those who initially escape it. Nina resolutely leaves home, while her old and tired mother moves the lace curtains covering the window to follow her daughter along “the cobbled street.” This Nina once prayed: “Jesus, just look / the other way. Get lost. I enjoy sinning.” But she suffers “[s]hame and regrets” while she stays away from home in London, especially because her mother dies before she sees her again. Only in the final stanza do we learn that Mum, Hetty, and another aunt once led a life as free from respectability as the one Nina sought; they danced in “Amsterdam’s / most famous music hall,” “lifting frilly skirts and silk-stockinged legs.” But they “‘promised [themselves] to become respectable.’” Their former lives were self-limited, and so is Nina’s “sinning.” After the funeral, she and Aunt Hetty go back “to the lace curtains covering third-floor windows,” and “sit quietly,” looking at the old pictures of those music hall days. (I am reminded of the ubiquity of lace curtains in many European countries—as if there were an edict requiring them. An American friend living in Germany a couple of decades ago told me there practically was an edict requiring that those curtains stay open during the day, so it was clear nothing improper was going on.)

Boehm is a poet whose imagination is stirred by astronomy, biology, paleontology, physics, chemistry, and math, and whose metaphors often take wing from and make resonant use of science. “Rumours”—in the poem of that title—come “through the grapevine / with debris like a comet’s tail / some burn up before falling / on fertile soil.” Literary allusion is richly meaningful too: “Like Ophelia, she drowns / in the shallow water of lies” (“Rumours”). The end of a relationship is figured in terms of the physics of color: “You shimmered almost white / when you told me you’d be leaving.” “Said I absorbed, absorbed, absorbed. / I was black, sly, silent, deadly.” (“To Laura Who Taught Me the Physics of Colour”). “Stars and Constellations” exploits the language of astronomy, e.g. “star cluster containing middle-aged / hot B-type stars,” to talk about the Hollywood kind of heavenly bodies. The final section of the poem aptly plays on the language used for both kinds of “stars” in an elegy for long-dead actresses of a certain ilk.

The bone orchard contains lights,
eons ago extinguished,
still glowing in that knowing way
when sex was not as yet a cheap
commodity. Luring, alluring,
the pose, the wink. The pout
perfected. It’s all rotting now.
Soon it’ll be dark in the orchard,
except for the occasional irrlicht
zigzagging across cyberspace.

The final section of the book, “Transcendence,” includes the starkly objective and poignant “He’s Losing Words,” a poem coming from the poet’s abundance of words, “gifts for [her] friend’s father,” who is losing his, and speaks only in the formulas of weather forecasts: “For or against euthanasia the tempers run high. He says / Easterly winds of up to 80 km per hour expected.” “The Small Observer” is a delicate appreciation of the vantage point of a child standing on a milestone, from which she can see the “wave of the wheat” in the field, and the “lark...climbing / into blinding blue, trilling ecstasy.” The wry “Coming Tomorrow, Bringing a Friend” shows the mother anxious to prepare the foods her adult son loved, to “show this girl,” “Pot roast of course / and spaetzle,” and ends when the “tall, tanned...“beautiful son” says “‘Mum, meet Sebastian.’” In “Today I Was Touched,” the speaker is physically touched in massage for bursitis and tendonitis, touched emotionally by “[her] husband missing [her,]” by “photos...of granddaughters” sent to her, and even by “the display of love by a small dog / who lives on her floor.” But something that was only remotely learned “from the Internet” is reported with total restraint— “My friend Bernard died”—and suggests a stunning incompletion. I was deeply touched by Rose Mary Boehm’s poems; every word counts, and they richly reward multiple readings.

Judy Kronenfeld’s fifth book of poetry, Groaning and Singing, was published in February, 2022, by FutureCycle Press. Her previous collections include Bird Flying through the Banquet (FutureCycle, 2017), and Shimmer (WordTech, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Cider Press Review, Cimarron Review, MacQueen’s Quinterly, New Ohio Review, Offcourse, One, Pratik, Rattle, Slant, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Verdad, Your Daily Poem, and other journals, and in more than three dozen anthologies.  

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