Beth Ann Cagle
First Comes Love
Main Street Rag Press

ISBN: 978-1-59948-516-4

Reviewer: CL Bledsoe

Cagle’s collection opens with a meditation entitled “Bearing New Moons”: “My journey is numbered on a handless clock./ Am I to name the hour of my becoming?” She seems to be saying that we often aren’t in control—or at least not as much as we’d like to be—when it comes to the directions our lives take. Cagle doesn’t make easy assumptions or empty statements about spirituality and life. She goes on to explore questions of how to live and how to live well, “…the memories/ of sickness, rebirths, fear of death, the quiet terror/ of not having my say as I claw the cliffs to nowhere/ vital.” Throughout the collection, Cagle explores issues of spirituality and morality, religion and nonbelief. In “The Great Promised Land Called God,” she says, “When god shatters in me, my spirituality/ aches without a host to circle, a toddler/ without a mother, lost in Manhattan streets.” But she isn’t simply dealing with failing faith; she’s opening herself to consider spirituality itself, divorced from faith. She explores different faiths, looking for truth wherever she can. In “Astray in the Promised Land,” she laments, “…my spirituality wanes without a god to circle.” So where does she find peace? In love, poetry, and the understanding that peace is a fleeting thing.

Many of Cagle’s poems are slices of life. “Monkey Junction Waffle House, 2:00 AM” is an accomplished sestina that follows a woman having breakfast amongst chaos and calamity. A cast of damaged but still mostly upright characters litters the scene, from the surly chain-smoking teenager to the openly bleeding homeless man. All of this is seemingly commonplace, which seems shocking to the reader but not to the characters. Finally, when an EMT enters and asks, “Who needs help?” after ordering toast, the reader begins to realize that all of them need help, of a sort, not only because they’re all clearly damaged but because their damage is so insulating that they don’t notice each other. It’s hard not to consider that this idea might apply to us all.

But this separation, this ignoring of each other, isn’t an act of cowardice. It’s bravery to go on at all. In “Swallowing the Sun,” Cagle tells the story of a medical procedure. She enters the emergency room after having visions that read like hallucinations brought on by fever:

Last night, I walked in stars,
searching for the right one as I burned,
little time to steal another, stuff it
in my corporeal pocket until I bulge,
slits of light slipping through my seams.

Her vivid language captures the delirium beautifully. And though it’s a frightening situation, the poem’s main focus is the love of a mother bathing and caring for her adult daughter. Many of these poems are about love, from specific references, descriptions of lingering kisses and romantic actions, to deeper, more staid instances of love (“Honeymoon Interrupted” is a hilarious poem which also manages to surprise).

Illness is another major theme in Cagle’s work, including asthma, blood clots, and other illnesses. “After Neurosurgery” contains some of the most powerful language in the collection. It begins:

Three times, I’ve walked, alone, the thin
waistline of graveyards, clutched
crimson gladiolas between my teeth,
dug the moist earth of ancestors.

Three times, I’ve sucked dirt from nails
and climbed sword lilies to morning,
naked but for grandmother’s corms;
secret seed pods wait in my fingers.

Cagle uses down-home imagery—mud pies, crawdads, chicken coops, and the like, without dropping into familiar Southern aphorisms or well-trod territory. These are cultural road signs, but her experiences and observations are unique and fresh. “How Are You Doing?” is a poem about love in a long-term marriage. It opens with problems, the wife wondering if the husband is interested in sex, and all of her excuses as to why they shouldn’t do it. “But last night was different,” the narrator states, “he got hot/ and heavy, titillating a sensitive area/ where my neck meets my shoulder.” She wakes with hickies, “And here I am forty-four,/ wearing a scarf for the whole week.”

The struggle to maintain a spiritual orientation is a struggle to find peace but also joy. It isn’t like flipping on and off a light switch; it’s a constant struggle that is mostly won when forgotten. There are darker times to balance the joy. In “What I’ve Lost in the Divorce,” Cagle penned an ode to her former mother-in-law:

Today, I lost home—a woman
strong as a house of brick, rare
as tended wisteria. Still, morning
glories choke her tender
impatiens and the basement
floods every time rainwater
weeps through the cracks.

“Milking Jenny” is an ode to a goat the narrator cared for as a young teenager. The goat had been separated from her herd and “her cry echoed/ across the field.” It’s an apt description of loneliness and forlornness. “Black-Eyed Susan at Sunrise,” is an inspiring poem about overcoming adversity. “Petals flung wide, I stand fascinated/ at the sun of my formation,” it begins. The flower is ready, awaiting bees, “…wanting/ nothing more than simple proliferated/ pleasure.” The final poem in the collection is the title poem, “First Comes Love.” Throughout the collection, the title has seemed to tie the poems together as being love poems, a kind of overview of the narrator’s marriage. But with this placement, it becomes apparent that the entire collection has served as a precursor to the next adventure. “What is the heart made of?” the poem begins. Much of the poem’s imagery hints at the narrator’s readiness for the next phase. She describes, “Powerful embers waiting, waiting,” and, later, “Trembling window mannequins—watching/ those watching.” She is, like those mannequins, watching, but like the embers, she will either burst into flames or sputter into ash. The choice is hers. Likewise, the choice belongs to each of us when faced with a turning point, whether to sink into the past or change and move forward, when we have no guarantees as to where we’ll end up. In the end, though, it’s much more difficult and much more complex; as Cagle suggests, changing our lives is an act of love.