Paperback, 87 pages
Waving Back, Gail Thomas’ third book of poetry, impresses us with the achievements of a mature and adept craftsperson. In addition to admiring Thomas’ artistry, we feel expanded by these explorations of her struggles with and eventual loss of parents, her salvaging “the barnacled weight” after failed love relationships, and her lyrical celebration of sensual experience. Because this book contains a significant number of prose poems, we may also wonder why she moves between verse and prose so frequently, and what either genre affords her.
“Braided,” one of the most elegantly constructed poems in this book, illustrates several of Thomas’ virtues as a writer. Here, the speaker’s mother in happier times braided wool rugs, and this activity subtly serves as the poem’s central metaphor. While in the creative act, the mother appears disorderly (“sprawled on the floor”) even as she is fashioning something orderly (and perhaps also beautiful) out of pieces of cloth. Through deft dramatic pacing, Thomas presents us initially with the image of the sprawled parent, hinting thereby that eventually other “pieces” may remain unsewn and scattered. Eventually the mother does become psychologically unraveled, and the speaker responds by becoming both caretaker and gift-giver, bringing beauty to her mentally incapacitated parent in the form of a flowering cactus. The complexity and depth of the poem’s metaphor include suggestions of additional types of “braiding”: the sting of cactus spines and the mother’s caustic comments become intertwined with the grace of caretaking for a loved one; memories of a happier past are woven into present difficulties of dealing with an aged parent. Through expertly effective line breaks, the poem reveals the growth and transformation of the speaker as she takes in what is happening to her mother. What makes for powerful art is how quietly and surely this poem reveals and brings together much that lies beneath the situation.
Some of Thomas’ poems are simply unforgettable. In a disarmingly concise and simply-told tale of “tiny silver keys,” “escape plans,” “hiding places,” and “a rash of burglaries,” we learn what the title says: “How She Became a Writer.” In “Oh, the Young Men,” an aged gay man mixes himself “a dirty martini in the perfect glass with three queen-size skewered olives,” unabashedly celebrating his own existence and memories in grand style. In “Moonwalk,” Thomas’ evocation of suburban life in the late 1950s and early 1960s, facts (and line breaks) speak volumes: “In 1959 the family moved to a development of green […]” where “Father seeded grass / around the one tree left” and “Brother caged a boa constrictor.”
One cannot help but to try to understand why Thomas regularly chooses the prose-poem form. It seems a striking aesthetic decision given the evidence of how adept she can be at constructing the poetic line as line, and how wonderfully at times she creates pacing via the line. For example, how syntax is organized within the lines of “Stay” make the reader feel the threatening precipice described, just as these same visual and verbal elements help our eyes and mouths feel a hummingbird dart and hover in “July Moves On.” Conversely, in a few verse poems like “Flame,” lineation creates little effect; are these the sorts of versified poems that hanker after prose? Some of Thomas’ prose poems like “Blizzard, East River” consist wholly of description, without a self-identified speaker; but “Waving Back” has a speaker who not only describes what she sees but offers opinions about her own personal history. Perhaps the differences and similarities between two poems on facing pages (“To the Tour Guide, Chiusi” and “Memorial”) are most revealing. Although rhythm is very important in both, the echoes created by formal verse elements like repeated enjambment and near-rhyme help to inform to pace and meaning of “To the Tour Guide, Chiusi,” while the paragraph block of “Memorial” gives it a flowing, uninterrupted cadence forward.
Thomas often employs the imperative voice in these poems. We would most expect this in the “prayers” that end each section of the book. (Is it ironic that humans use the imperative to ask the divine to act for us?) Aside from such invocations, we encounter guides who instruct, and instances in which the imperative seems to be aimed at the lyric self, as in a soliloquy (for example, in the poem “Stay,” where the speaker (self-?) instructs: “Tell your orphan heart to stay”). What keeps the imperative fresh in this book is the variety of uses to which it is put. There’s a lovely intimacy evoked, for instance, in “Prayer to a Potato”: “teach me a hundred ways / to wallow in butter.”
I admire the almost unassuming, dependable achievement of these poems. Reading them, I always feel I am in sure hands. Thomas’ work delights upon revisiting, which I expect to do again and again.