Aug 21 2023
Poetry review – RECOVER: Charles Rammelkamp reviews a slender but rewarding collection by Allison Joseph
“I tell myself to tell it slant,” Allison Joseph writes in the title poem of her delightfully witty new collection, channeling Emily Dickinson. It is partly a poetic manifesto, partly a formula for living. Written with formal grace, like most of her poems, “Recover” begins:
Doesn’t matter if I stumble; hardly matters if I fall. I learn by learning how to fumble…
The poems, “Without Wings, Without Wheels” and “Steady as She Goes” echo these thoughts. The first begins:
I walk to get the rhythms out to work the ground beneath my feet to stumble shuffle roam and stop to catch the tears before I weep
“Steady as She Goes” likewise gives insight into the poet’s character and her commitment, starting off:
You’re calling me unstable but shaking is my strength I tremble but I’m able to go to any length to do what I require to shimmy in my strut a streak of rage inspired by every wound and cut
The sonnet, “Against Therapy” sums up the poet’s strength of character and commitment to follow her own counsel. “Know thyself,” as Socrates said, and Aristotle reaffirmed: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” The poem wisely concludes:
I’d rather be alone with this blank page than gaze into her kind of caring face, than stare at all her books, her framed degrees. This page won’t try to pacify my rage, or numb my grief with promises of grace if I could only live the life she sees.
There are seventeen poems that make up this collection. Four of them are sonnets, one is a villanelle and all are intelligent and brilliantly constructed. They read with the ease of lyrical laughter, as Joseph writes about the betrayals of the failing body (“Entering Chautauqua Bottoms in Perimenopause,” “Opticals”), the absurdities of academia (“Academic Love,” “And You Think Your Campus is Bad”) and the complexities of family (“”Everest’s Daughter,” “My Father, Back from the Dead, Visits to Complain about Donald Trump”).
Winking at the reader with good humor, “Back in the Day” is a poem that exaggerates the trope about the hardships of one’s ancestors vis-à-vis the cushy life that young whippersnappers lead – “700 miles uphill in the snow” to get to school, etc., but
Yes, of course we had ice cream! What do you think we were, uncivilized?
A poet of the body, Joseph knows about its pleasures as well as its failings, The sonnet “Afterglow” captures the joy of post-coital languor.
Let love lie languidly upon your lips, a taste of skin and sweat, of vibrant heat you shouldn’t wipe away with fingertips rinsed clean of it. You need not be discreet and wash all evidence of touch away, eliminating how you tangled here— the tossed and grizzled sheets where you both lay…
On a more somber note, “Somehow You Survived” is an ode to Dennis Brutus, the South African poet/activist who endured the worst of the brutalities of apartheid, imprisoned in a cell on Robben Island, “Mandela one cell over.” It’s a memory of Brutus’ visit to her campus in 1995. He died in 2009.
I heard you speak of hope in the face of death, of love in the midst of anger, of home in the midst of exile.
This same determination forms the foundation of Recover. Allison Joseph perseveres; she thrives.
The sonnet “Black and White in Color” is about watching daytime TV while home sick from work, a Jerry Springer type of “reality” show with young people on display airing their tragic marriages, one infidelity after another while a studio audience whoops it up. It’s like watching a car-wreck; you can’t tear yourself away.
I try to turn it off, but I’m held back: why must so much dysfunction come in black?
It’s not clear if Joseph is commenting on the show’s “guests” or its lurid content, but if recovery is the theme, as, unable to go to work, she nurses her own “woozy misery,” the poet is on her way to her own restoration.
Allison Joseph lost her husband and soulmate, the poet Jon Tribble, who was also her colleague at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, when he died suddenly and unexpectedly several years ago. While nothing in these poems directly alludes to her loss, the implications of the overall theme and title are impossible to ignore. Poetry, as we’ve seen time and again in ode and elegy, can have therapeutic value, as she continues to recover from her loss and grief. Joseph is strong and thoughtful and the poems in Recover testify to that strength and introspection. This slender, artful book is a pleasure to read, both for its formal beauty and the humanity that underlies it.