“Facing a Lonely West,” by Helen Losse

Helen Losse

Helen Losse

Reviewed by William Aarnes

Two poems in Helen Losse’s new collection, Facing a Lonely West, stick in the mind. The playful “Poetry as Sloe Gin” offers a number of metaphors for poetry, suggesting that “Coleslaw generates some poetry upon occasion” and that “Poetry is the whole / of a schoolboy, not a select part.” The gathering of suggestions ends,

Poetry is a brown field
in autumn: all thorns, not blackberries.

Poetry is sloe gin: all blackberries, not thorns.

For anyone with worries about how the Great Recession has affected people’s thinking about the importance of the humanities in education, the foreboding protest of “Soon” deftly resonates with those concerns. If the poem lacks the mordant rancor of the letters that make up Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, it nonetheless makes its point:

I think it will likely cost more
to major in philosophy

than math or physics.
No mention of the poet, the artist

the divinity school student
who argues apologetics

but makes little money.
Remember Saint. Paul

who made practical tents and be
forewarned. The day will come

when a man will climb a ladder
to repaint the Sistine Chapel ceiling

in a color that reflects more light
than it absorbs,

saving electrical power
rather than souls.

If these poems strike a chord, the collection would be stronger without others. “Super Moons” considers that the sinking of the Titanic may have been caused by the tides and ends with the thought of “a moon so super it could / upstage DiCaprio.” “The Middle Passage” seems a muddle, mentioning just briefly not only slaves in the “dark hold” of a ship but also mermaids and Sirens and a pirate who walks the plank. “Facing One’s Weakness” focuses without much insight on Kyle Busch’s becoming upset on camera. “Too Much Information” provides, without clarifying the reader’s discomfort, too much information. “Star over Bethlehem” is an uninspired retelling of the familiar story that ends by asking us to “imagine [the shepherds’] surprise / as the sky revealed an awesome star.” “Her Actual Question” and “Final Retreat” are both poems about writing and both end with enigmatic throwaways that were probably more fun to write than they are rewarding to read.

Losse writes poems that highlight her being a Southerner, a Christian, and a poet. As a Southerner she has an attentiveness to her natural surroundings (there is even a poem on kudzu—“Beautiful, Terrible Vine”) and a fondness for NASCAR. (Race comes up once—in “The Middle Passage.”) Family is important to her; a number of the poems are written in memory of her mother, who shared with other mothers a “unique wisdom.” Her Christianity ranges from a familiarity with the Bible to a “numinous wonder and unpretentious joy.” For her to be a poet is to be “God’s beloved”; it also means to be someone who approaches memories as a “detail adjuster.” And it is more detail-adjusting that this collection needs. Losse seems aware of the book’s limitations. In the collection’s final poem, “”Concerning Rock Hard Questions,” she asks,

So am I—that cloud-formed girl—
born to wrestle with rock-hard questions,
or just a poet with a propensity to borrow
another poet’s mysticism?

Such moments of honesty are disarming. And the strains that come with a poet’s, a Christian’s, and a Southerner’s life are acknowledged in poems like “The Year Mummy Had No [Easter] Basket” and “Parting Wounds.” But even these poems do not explore the inadequacies of Southern, Christian customs and family ties as thoroughly and tellingly as they might.

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