Sunday, January 2, 2011

Work Is Love Made Visible: A Review by Scott Andrews

Our best and most loyal guest poster, Scott Andrews, is back with the inaugural post of 2011.  This time, instead of writing about boobs, teen superheroes, or Obama's children's book, he reviews a new award winning collection of photographs and poetry by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish.  For more of Scott's unique perspectives, check out his cool new blog, Seeing Things.

Work Is Love Made Visible: Collected Family Photographs and Poetry by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish (West End Press)
During the recent holidays, many of us visited the homes of our origins.  “Home” and “family” probably have been on our minds, and for many of people their relationship to those two things can be conflicted.
Sometimes home and family can be things we seek to escape, because of poverty, because of family troubles, because of dreams for broader horizons, because a lot of reasons.  Yet home and family also can be things to which we long to return, or at least things we recall fondly – especially when we recall those people who helped us survive our home, or when we recall with the pride the courage of those who survived with us or recall with envy those who escaped.
This conflicted relationship to home is one of several themes that run through Jeanetta Calhoun Mish’s collection of poetry, Work Is Love Made Visible, which in 2010 won the 50th Annual Western Heritage Award and the Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry.  The poems are more narrative than the lyrical; they have the comfort and utility of a tool worn smooth with use.  Mish’s work goes not for the estranging enjambments,  ironic allusions, or perplexing subjectivity of much recent poetry but for the familiarity of a highway that leads back home, a place that makes one feel both welcome and wary.
In “for my brother,” Mish shares the obituary she wrote for the newspaper upon her brother’s death and also the words she did not publish: “truth is my brother’s life never really got started.  berated, beaten, broken by our stepfather.  escaped to the sanctuary of our grandparents home bewildered and betrayed.”  She describes the many trials hidden behind the list of occupations and travels in the official obituary.   The newspaper obituary hides her real desire: to curse the circumstances of her brother’s life, who died alone in the last of a string of ever-cheaper apartments:
curse the violent stepfather curse the meanness of a small town curse the joke of a healthcare system in this country curse myself for not knowing he hadn’t been well for not knowing he had lain there for so long.
In “My Sister’s Sacrifices,” she describes the sister who escapes and is sighted later in various places, “as if she were a u.f.o.”  Where the sister goes is not the important question, the poet states; why she goes is the issue: “I care why she goes because goes in my stead.”  It concludes:

She goes away because we both know
that it is futile to lock the door at night
when the boogieman is inside;
that there is no reason to stay home
when home is the last place you want to go.

But when “home” refers to Grandma and Grandpa, to the sanctuary mentioned in “for my brother,” there is love and longing.  In “Grandpa’s Bouquet,” Mish recalls being a child spending the day with her grandfather, running errands, sharing the “meaty read heart” of a watermelon with him and the cows who come begging.  She ends the day curled up in his arms, “inhaling [his] essence and the odors of the day.”  Her grandmother is recalled in “Work Is Love Made Visible” sewing the poet’s clothes after working all day: “Her love for me is a green paisley dress with a matching purse” and “Her love for me is a 1970s high fashion three-piece suit.”  Mish praises this “alchemy of love and labor” made manifest in her wardrobe.
In other poems and in photographs of relatives, the collection conveys the difficulties and pleasures of a life spent working for a living, raising families, making ends meet, hitting the road.  That travel was sometimes an escape from trouble or a journey to opportunity.  She describes the relatives who ventured to California and her own journey into academia as a graduate student, teacher, and poet.  All of that comes together in the poem that opens the collection, “Rosasharn Reports from California in the 21st Century.” 
The poem imagines the Joad family daughter from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath taking literature classes at a university in California today.  She is puzzled by some of their discussion of symbolism, especially about her most-famous scene of nursing a grown man during a rainstorm at the end of the novel.  She is dismayed by their remarks that Steinbeck’s “virile, realist style” is not “viable” today.  Rosasharon reacts, “Wouldn’t you just know it?/ Plain talk is out of fashion.”
Channeling Rosasharn, Mish fills her poems with the power of “plain talk” about family, work, love, and home.

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