Review: Barbara Rockman’s to cleave

by Britton Gildersleeve

It’s difficult to write a poem that observes clearly. Not as simple as detailed description: there must not be too many metaphors and similes, only enough that the image offered is pregnant with meaning beneath the surface words. We must be enticed to care about both what the poet is seeing and what they are offering us a view of. Images must reveal and conceal. In her book to cleave, poet Barbara Rockman manages to make this juggling act look effortless.

Just two poems into the book, “Three Peaches on a White Plate,” the peaches “swell . . . in ripening devotion.” The next poem, “At Rest in Rain,” hints at the observer’s mission, in tune with the Rilke epigraph (My looking deepens things and they come toward me to meet and be met.). In other poems, sharp attention to details illuminates a still life, a vignette, a description: a “brackish roadside canal” with a “grass-matted lip”; “the iced deck,/the white-capped night,/gleam that rimmed each porthole”; “clouds like bloated fish.” The landscapes within and without serve as a kind of emotional stereopticon, with the end result a multi-dimensional sense of uneasy beauty. Such specificity creates a window into exterior landscape, as well as a lens through which to view it.

Rockman suggests a dynamic duality, beginning with the opposing climates and terrains of “Flying Home from the Pacific Coast Rim, I Consider the Rio Grande Rift”: “I/press one knee into damp pine duff/one into cold pressed beach . . . what opposition might teach/it is eternal   it is brief. . . .” This sense of conflict, of an overwhelming stasis in the face of a quandary, moves into the next poem as well: “There are two mornings on the menu.” Rockman weighs the choices—“choose from/Morning A  Morning B/ . . . Thorn-studded  Smooth-stalked . . .”

Such juxtapositions share the poet’s confusions, the ways in which she holds opposing images, choices, moments in uneasy balance. She contrasts a turkey vulture—“arthritic . . . moth-eaten”—with an egret “bird more air than night” (lovely!), ultimately reconciling the two to show how “grace lit a path from grief.” “Of the Coal Blue Field,” which begins with the poet and her four-year-old daughter sharing a private vocabulary segues into a stunning commentary on the nature of the poet: “seeing is his subject/and rendition his obsession.”  Certainly that seems true of Rockman’s work.

What enthralls me most, however, is completely subjective: Rockman’s several poems that examine love and marriage, particularly long-term versions of both. In to cleave, she manages to catch both the fleeting moments of everyday married life (“My Husband Comes Home from Work”) and those rare instants of transcendence (“After Birding at Cochiti Lake”). She moves from a catalog of the objective in “Home from Work”—“. . . he straightens, lifts his eyes/”—to the complicating subjective metaphor: “. . . eyes/their concrete bottom and the dead/leaves trapped there.” In “After Birding” the vocabulary of marriage becomes avian, and the images following “when we roll close at night, I hear wings” build to a climax (“Across my back, a blue heron steps./Tips of feathers brush thigh/and neck . . .”), holding the heron, bluebirds, a bald eagle, and rising geese in equal sensual weight. It’s possibly my favorite poem in the book.

Throughout the collection, a recurring dance of hands—the “flushed palms” of tulips, “my grandfather of the lovely hands,” “my hands/are scythes sweeping hay,” an entire poem on hands (“Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz . . .”)—forms a chain, where the hands are beads and the words links in a chain of pages that reach out to gather us in.

In Rockman’s book there is natural observation, there is motherhood; there’s trauma, marriage, family, and a deep love of words. She is a varied writer, moving easily among forms, subjects, voices. Each voice, be it that of a gull, a stone, a child, a daughter-in-law, has something necessary to tell us. I can’t imagine any reader coming away empty-handed. This is a book worth multiple readings.

Barbara Rockman’s earlier book, Sting and Nest, was the winner of the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award and the National Federation of Press Women Book Prize. Her work has been featured in Southern Humanities Review, Nimrod, Bellingham Review, and Taos Journal of Art and Literature, among other national journals.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

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