Book Beat – Reviews by Elaine Palencia

At Pegasus we draw great pleasure in celebrating the work of our colleagues. Although Book Beat only reviews poetry, we will be happy to announce books members publish in other genres. If you are a member of the Kentucky State Poetry Society and interested in having a recently published work reviewed for publication in Pegasus, please contact:

Elaine Fowler Palencia

3006 Valleybrook Drive

Champaign, IL 61822

(217) 621-1093

Libby Falk Jones, Yakety Yak (Don’t Talk Back): Poems. Lexington KY: Workhorse, 2022. $10.00

For women who passed from childhood to adolescence in the fifties and pre-hippie sixties, the phrase, You’re a Young Lady Now, conjures up a sweet painting of a blonde, teenage girl in beribboned pigtails, tee shirt, rolled up jeans, white anklets, and loafers, looking at herself in a mirror. At her feet sits a teddy bear. The mirror hangs over a girlish vanity table, itself dressed in a ruffled, white and lavender polka dot skirt. The girl is pointing at her image in the mirror—an image wearing shoulder-length, wavy hair pulled back with lavender bows, lipstick on her lips, and a sweetly ruffled lavender dress.

This is the controlling image behind Libby Falk Jones’ new chapbook, Yakety-Yak (Don’t Talk Back). The picture graced the cover of a booklet published by the Kotex corporation to introduce, in calm, supportive language, the subject of menstruation and Kotex products to teenage girls. Jones’ chapbook title is borrowed from the Coasters’ 1958 hit novelty song, a feisty harangue by a parent to a teenager about cleaning his room. Her poems document that poised time in young women’s lives, in the fifties South, when they could see through the looking glass to adulthood, but hadn’t stepped through. This meant swimming (no doubt with a bathing cap to keep the hairdo perfect) in a lake of racism, sexism, and written-in-stone behavioral restrictions for “good” girls. 

The first poem, “Don’t Call Her Woman, Just”, lists dismissive nicknames for females—chick, kitten, dumb bunny, cute trick. The second poem, “Spoiled,” voices resentment at being called “spoiled” and “rotten,” and what those words take their power from—old black bananas, meat left out of the fridge, the rich-bitch stereotype. But the speaker talks back: “I didn’t feel rotten     I felt clean.” As the prison doors of rigid social expectations try to shut her in, she declares, “I’m out of the box.” The battle lines are drawn.

In notes to the collection, Jones explains that the five poems entitled “Field Guide to Growing Up a Southern Lady,” each covering a different but related topic—School, Beauty, Manners, Dating, and Fashion–“are drawn from personal interviews with high school and college friends as well as period (pun intended?) publications.” These “guides” list the thou shalts and thou shalt nots intended to produce a socially acceptable (marriageable) young lady: “Don’t talk back . . . Lose gracefully” (School); “Walk so that nothing jiggles in front or back” (Beauty); “Don’t leave the table until everyone is finished eating and you’ve asked to be excused” (Manners); “Remember it’s as easy to fall in love with a rich boy as a poor boy” (Dating); “learn the vocabulary of fabrics—linen, seersucker, gabardine, pique, dimity—” (Fashion).  Society has a thousand eyes.

A suite of six poems grapples with the signal event of the collection, menstruation. But there are also other kinds of maturity to be achieved, i.e., acquiring an awareness of the racial divide of the time. “Knowing/Not Knowing” ends, “I knew that my family loved me and wanted everything good in the world for me. /I didn’t know that African-American families did too.” And “Outrageous Rebellions, Mid-Century Southern Lady Style,” provides a humorous catalogue of such personal imperatives as, “Read Ayn Rand and eschew/service projects, throwing your mother into a twit.” Mercy!

The most poignant commentary, “On the Roadside, November 1963,” recalls the assassination of President Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy was the model, what so many girls and their mothers aspired to be: “a face a girl would die for . . . /glamour queen sweet mama too/ pretty Caroline at her side/dear John-Boy in her arms.” And none of it–the beauty, fashion, manners, schools– could protect her in the end: “(and in her hand a piece of his skull)”.

This chapbook cleverly documents a time and place that shaped the lives of many.

Roberta Schultz, Underscore, Loveland OH: Dos Madres Press, 2022. 83pp.

Roberta Schultz’s first full-length poetry collection is thoroughly informed by music, as it should be. After all, Schultz is one third of the folk trio Raison D’Etre.

The poems are grouped in four sections with musical titles—Plainsong, Solo with Instrument, Scored for Orchestra, and Of the Spheres. The effect of this arrangement is a gradual widening of the musical/spiritual theme, so that it opens out like the bell of a brass instrument. “Ode to Prayer,” leads off the collection with small prayerful, or superstitious, gestures, such as a “quiet tug at the dreamcatcher/ slung casually from my/ rearview mirror.” By the final poem in the book, “Gravity,” we are contemplating black holes literal and metaphorical, “those massive vats of danger/where space-time’s every/fold stretches fabric . . .” The word Underscore suggests not only to emphasize, but also musical scores and perhaps hidden meanings beneath a main “score.”         

Singing and musical instruments draw the poet’s attention again and again, as in the soothing “Lullaby” (“your voice becomes the mother/your voice becomes the child”); “Spirit Being,” which constructs a drum and tests it (“White pines/bristle in ancient cadence. Hearts/pound their startled underscore”); “Funeral Wind Chimes,” “Caroling Bells,” “High Wire” (playing a steel-stringed guitar) and others. Music is inherently social. Working against that connectivity is the pandemic, which darkens several poems. But “Let Down Your Hair: A Pandemic Fairy Tale,” imagines Rapunzel, tired of being quarantined with a grumpy prince, escaping from her tower by means of her long braid. Hurrah!

The variety of explicit poetic influences, some perhaps from workshop exercises, indicates a dedication to learning the craft. Indeed, “Poem Begun with a Line from Basho,” laments, “I’ve labored in the dark for years.” “I Think He Heard It Wrong” answers Maurice Manning’s “A Blasphemy.” “How Town Pronouns” is a take on e.e. cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” There is a pantoum, an acrostic, a cento, a golden shovel poem. “Last Call” (“a poem walks into a bar . . .”) recalls Mary Allen’s chapbook, Cruising the Word Bar, reviewed in the spring 2022 issue of Pegasus.

Schultz’s anecdotal approach also invites the reader down other avenues of personal history. “Meditation of Bozo Buddhist and the Steeler Fan” gathers events that share either the author’s birthday or birth year, such as the I Love Lucy show and the film A Streetcar Named Desire, both of which premiered in 1951, and Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception in the 1972 Raiders-Steelers playoff game. Harris, too, was born on March 7. Who we are comes from when we are, and what we remember of our time: “What we keep, keeps us.” The timeline lengthens in “On Reading Skeleton Keys by Brian Switek,” in the Of the Spheres section. Switek’s subtitle is, The Secret Life of Bones. This meditation on the sweep of human history takes us to ancient DNA, tar pits, the Burgess Shale, the bones of kings. All of this is part of us, too.

A favorite of mine is the poignant, “I Return to Sing at Hospice after 15 Months.” The idea of volunteering in such a setting, of singing patients on, “into the glow/of an overcast evening sky,” says so much about the generosity, the power to comfort, of art.

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