Reviewer: Erica Goss
The wild and the domestic live side-by-side in Joan Colby’s new collection, Her Heartsongs. The tension between the two realms gives these poems their energy and edge. These are stories of love and peril precariously balanced in a world where persistence wins over passivity.
The first line of the opening poem in the book, “Her Heart,” reads “The heart of a woman beats faster than the heart of a man,” which amounts to “A billion more beats over a lifetime. No wonder a woman / Is tired.” A woman is also tired, the poem reminds us, of misdiagnoses, ignorance, and her own vulnerability. If she seems prickly or crabby, she’s just trying to survive the “things she can’t control.”
In “Illness of Horses: A Woman Meditates,” Colby compares maladies that affect horses – “String Halt,” “Moon Blindness,” “Joint Evil” – to issues that affect women; i.e., “Failure of love,” “Boredom of marriage,” and “A marked tendency to lie down and die.” This poem shows us how the condition of horses, whose beauty and wildness must be tamed and broken, is in many ways identical to the condition of women, forced into domesticity as “The world centers, / Turns in against you.”
Horses return in “Having It All,” an ironic take on the idea that “nothing was mutually exclusive.” In this poem, the horses are just one of the many things tugging at the speaker’s attention, which include love, children, and poetry:
My small daughters wailing as I exercised
The hunters, as I shouted Silence
Slamming the typewriter’s return,
Battering the keys…
I sat on my stairs and wept.
And yet, the juggling act continues, despite the speaker “Refusing to acknowledge that balance / Is what keeps one from falling.”
Danger lurks in these poems, as “Night Swimming” aptly describes. Two preteen girls swim in “The moonlit quarry,” arrogantly oblivious to the threats of shouting boys and the lights of a police car, “so sure / Of our abilities… / Of course, it was forbidden” and therefore, even more exciting. What was just a daring game turns shocking years later, as “A sedan of murdered bodies” is found in the dredged quarry. The horror of what could have been ends the poem:
How all that time we swam
Above their bloated faces, letting the water slide
In a slick ambush over our small breasts…
Colby aptly describes the callow naiveté of youth: “we could have feared / But didn’t, just kept swimming.” How many times in life do we look back and shudder at our youthful ignorance of danger, or, as the poem implies, our half-understood attraction, its secret thrill?
Danger and sensuality appear in “Securing a Memory” and “Food.” In the first poem, the speaker is seventeen, riding in the “suicide seat,” with the driver’s arm around her and the sexual tension an “immense blossom / That opens between us, night petals rank / And dangerous and seductive so that / My mouth tingles.” This is a memory, she tells us, the important parts distilled into a “hungry animal.” Hunger appears in “Food,” also a poem about appetites, risk, and memory:
Thought people who liked eating were obscene.
Gross acts of bodies…
My mother worshiped restraint.
“I simply didn’t know the taste of things,” Colby writes, her preference for the bland epitomized in “the Sunday host I had to swallow whole / And flavorless, an air-puffed masquerade.” The energy in “Securing a Memory” bursts forth in the last section of “Food,” as the speaker proclaims that she’s changed; now, she will
Try any new taste, any strangeness,
Seagull wings, snake’s tongues, a wealth
Of passion fruit, coriander,
Saffron and sea salt.
“Food” transcends itself with this beautiful couplet:
I pummel stone-ground dough into a shape
For rising. It doubles like love given for no reason.
Several poems focus on domestic chores, the thankless and mostly invisible work relegated to women. Colby elevates these tasks with sensitivity and precision, probing beneath the surface to find fresh insights. The alchemy of preserving food comes through in “Putting Up the Produce:”
Jewelers of the garden,
My mother and her sisters putting up
Everything that rose and bristled
Or hid its gritty treasure
In the dirt.
In “Ironing,” “Pressing, pressing / How good that was.” In “Wash Day,” “Wash day is Monday. Day of Artemis, / Huntress and midwife,” and in “Washing Dishes,” “She washed. He dried. / Their marriage.”
“Wouldn’t heaven backwards be hell?” Colby asks in “Smart Girls,” reflecting on the trend to name girls “Nevaeh.” The poem reflects: “Irony eludes the not-so-smart” and “Smart. No one likes a woman who thinks / That’s what she is.” Who is smart and who isn’t, whose truth counts and whose doesn’t, weaves its way through the poem until the last couplet:
There was still so much to learn
About mercy, the pound of flesh.
referring here to Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
“Smart Girls” reveals the schism in so much of what passes for discourse nowadays.
The poem “Twisted Gut” graphically illustrates Colby’s view of Nature as an unruly female who, in allowing herself to be tamed, extracts – and pays – a heavy price. Two women aid a stricken mare, her insides snarled just after giving birth. One woman has her arm in the mare’s rectum, the other holds her head. With a human on either end, “A sound like a squeezed balloon” erupts when the mare’s guts untwist, leaving
Three exhausted females in a torn-up stall,
Straw scattered everywhere like confetti.
These are fierce, intelligent, uncompromising poems that nevertheless contain an immense tenderness for the world. “Here’s how we ought to love,” Colby writes in “How to Love,” “the way two children / At the beach begin with shells and wet sand.” Nature, she reminds us, where love begins and ends, makes us human.