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Sean Reagan

Sean Reagan wrote the following review which was distributed on an email list hosted by Doug Holder who operates the Ibbetson Street Press.

Reading Berryman to the Dog by Wendy Taylor Carlisle. Jacaranda Press, San Jose California. $12.95. Check out Amazon.com for price information and other reviews. Also, Spring Church Books at 1-800-496-1262.


I admit my bias towards any writer who reads poetry to her dog. My own best friend, Jake, is partial to Wendell Berry and Hayden Carruth. I approached Carlisle's book expecting to be pleased and, not surprisingly, I was. But my view of Carlisle's excellence is more than just our shared appreciation of things canine. Reading Berryman to the Dog is a hardy and elegant book.

Carlisle's poems own a curious toughness. Tenderness and humor underlie her writing but her subjects are often painful and complicated - child abuse, broken relationships, war and its personal consequence, death. Probing the cracks in each poem's veneer, Carlisle brings us resolutely closer to a "hot, sweet center" that is both salve and cinder. "I heal from the outside-in," she writes in "Keeping Up with the Dead" and indeed, these poems, steadfast and uncompromising, hold us fast and burrow deep. Carlisle's dogged pursuit of health, of wholeness, is not a new age me-and-what-my-therapist-think kick. She mines life's banality, cruelty and joy with an eye toward what poet Jack Gilbert once referred to as a natural and serious happiness. She knows that getting better doesn't mean "happily ever after." In "The Interview" she yearns to be asked to "investigate my happiest day" when "[O]n a day of unspeakable sadness . . . I can still pick up a pen." Writing is survival.

Of course, content alone, however stirring and heartfelt, won't carry a poem. Language needs to hum below the hood and in Carlisle's case, there's six cylinders going full bore. She crafts lines that are solid as brick walls - "[L]ord, save us from the need to chide sad flesh/or to believe we're not all animals with wishes" - and just as deftly sings, aria-like - "your family after, the way they need/you, the calm of your front porch/the way you love them, the way you/love them all". Moving easily between formal and free verse, Carlisle's facility with language buttresses the potential of her subject and turns it into a magnet we can't quite escape. eye toward what poet Jack Gilbert once referred to as a natural and serious happiness. She knows that getting better doesn't mean "happily ever after." In "The Interview" she yearns to be asked to "investigate my happiest day" when "[O]n a day of unspeakable sadness . . . I can still pick up a pen." Writing is survival.

She takes on Greek mythology with wry humor. In "I Swan", Leda muses on her stream-side encounter with Zeus in his swan suit. "The poets say he overwhelmed/me on that bank - the sudden blow, the storm of wings.//Why do they reckon I gave in? Inquisitive? You bet." Regarding the resultant offspring (Helen of Troy, Castor and Pollux, et al) Leda says: "[A]s for the kids, around our neighborhood/my alibi is this: they came from eggs./Don't blame me if they didn't turn out good." In "Penelope", the loyal wife resists the attention of men clamoring for her attention. "How could I hit the mattress with these brazen/hunks" she asks Minerva, "with my Odysseus so good in bed? I think I recall that." She sits still and "clasps the family honor close/ whereas" her suitors "love me loud and raucous, chiefly for my real estate." Of her fidelity she notes "[S]ome say I have a magic loom, undoing each day's doing/but none of them is there at night as I unravel, tear deep in."

Perusing the land mines and mysteries of childhood, Carlisle never succumbs to anger, confusion or bitterness. In "Notes for a Childhood I" she seeks "a name/for a hand now, a certain sort of skin/that, surface warm, contains a cold/so grave you look down into it forever" and recalls that "[F]rom Mamma . . . /I discover how/to race towards whatever restrains us, hating it,/slamming on the brakes at the last instant." Measuring restraint against the need to name and learn is a vital act of reclamation. Carlisle seizes the past in order to write her own "version,/which is also the present," in which "a woman can lie down loose/in her body. A mild hand can reach out." The triumph in these poems is quiet, ever aware of how fragile we are in our struggle to become and to remain human.

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