Elixir Press, 2013
Perfect Binding, 87 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Dawn Leas
Her Familiars is a garden in full summer bloom with its author, Jane Satterfield as its master gardener. It is 87 pages of vibrant flowers that burst and cascade off the page interspersed with dense green shrubbery that the reader can’t help but take the time to study their intricacies. This mixed bouquet of free verse and form honors Satterfield’s American and British heritage by deftly transporting the reader between America and England several times over.
The collection as a whole is a hybrid of modern-day issues and historical references that are political, social, familial and familiar (both as an adjective and a noun). Satterfield occasionally sprinkles both modern-day and the historical within individual poems as well. The skill of the poet is displayed most fully when she does this as she not only sculpts a sense of connectedness like aged ivy covering a stone house in the English countryside, but also an arched entry through which readers can easily slip into the meaning of the poems. Sometimes Satterfield gives the reader a sweeping landscape view; other times, she focuses the lens on a single branch or tiny petal. Either way, the reader carries away a basketful of images, ideas, and experiences.
The first of four sections opens with a poem set in America and ends it with one set in England. In “Girl Scouts Visit the FBI,” Satterfield flashes between a field trip that captures the essence of girlhood innocence and an X-Files rerun with her commentating on snippets of conversation between the two main characters, Scully and Mulder. About the trip, she includes:
What badge were we after, what wisdom? Citizenship? Government?
And then a few stanzas later:
Mulder knows the truth is out there. Scully, good Girl Scout, questions
The section-ending poem is called “One Kind of Purgatory” and is a villanelle about the accident that killed Princess Diana. Its repeated lines beautifully root the poem:
It spins forever, the revolving door –
What is the camera – what are we – looking for?
The movement of the lines is as fluid as a rain drop slipping down the stem of a flower, but the choice of the poet to write it in form seems to contain and define the sorrow and chaos of the event.
In between are poignant slices of life and interesting nods to the past, some of which address 9/11 (“Reading Billy Collins’ ‘The Names’ with My Daughter”), the collapse of a marriage (“The Body Impolitic”), one about Charlotte Bronte (“Governess”), and “Letter in February” about the death of a friend that ends with:
…Dear Sarah, your books,
the white-out of “by her own hand” – I wish
for an aria of words to plumb
winter’s due season of grief. Books. A genius leaves.
What else but to work in the space of that shadow?
The next section contains several poems that speak to war and politics, including a pantoum called “The Water-Cure.” According to the Notes section at the end of the book, it is a form of prisoner torture dating back to the Spanish Inquisition that has been used both legally and illegally for several hundred years. Here again, the poet’s use of form constructs beautiful lines on ugly subject matter.
When a judge rules that “waterboarding” is repugnant but not unlawful
And not what he calls “torture,”
it’s part of a long tradition and sound criminal practice –
more prisoners pushed under water.
“Collapse: A Fugue” is a hummingbird song with a musicality that dips and soars across 15 pages and hundreds of years. Its structure is soil carefully tilled by Satterfield to create a bed of wild flowers that speaks to iTunes shuffles, Greenland and the Vikings, Roanoke and Jamestown colonies, and disappearing honeybees. Several lines and phrases are repeated like the hummingbird darting back and forth between flowers.
When one part beginneth & the other singeth
that which the first did sing
History's voiced, contrapuntal...
Aging and anti-aging. Plastic surgery. Teen popularity. A sex-toy party. Breast cancer. Domestic goddess-dom. These are just a few seed ideas that are sprinkled throughout section three, and which Satterfield addresses by braiding a sense of humor, reverence and a hint of sarcasm to create a selection of poems that gives the collection sturdy roots at its center.
From the title poem, “Her Familiars:”
… -why not take a tip
from today's radio guest
who assures me the “mommy makeover”
is a blessing for women
not yet past their prime? -
“Save the Ta-Tas” is a response to a bumper sticker for a clothing line that donates a portion of each sale to breast cancer research:
My girls are better than yours
Cancer can take my ta-tas but not my tee
Save us, Lord, from the lure
of a good-hearted mission gone astray.
The final section is one poem “Clarice Cliff Considers Leaving Edwards Street.” Spanning nearly 20 pages, it chronicles the life of Clarice Cliff, who was the first female art director at A.J. Wilkinson Pottery in England at a time when it was not common for women to reach such levels in the work place. The poem is neatly and tightly pruned like a privacy hedge maze in which the reader wends through lines such as:
My moves between factories might well have been viewed
'with disgust' -
You were meant to learn one part of the trade
stay put, make do -
The end of the poem gives equal weight to the different choices women make:
A woman, the papers say,
who makes money
concentrates every atom of her brains, energy, and talent
on achieving success.
My sisters, their births and their babies?
Ambition of a different fire.
From the first page to the last, it is evident that Satterfield got her hands deep into the soil, and the result is a collection where the happiness, quietness, sadness, and scariness of life events pushed through the surface with energy, beauty, and strength. Its forms and content are synchronized, collaged and well-pondered by the author. Readers should don a sun hat and dig into this collection with garden gloves on, or better yet, off to really feel its texture, its meanings and its depths.
Dawn Leas’s chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in goldwakepress.org, Literary Mama, Willows Wept Review, Southern Women’s Review, Interstice, Poetry in Transit, and others. She is the Associate Program Director of the Wilkes University low-residency creative writing MA/MFA programs.