In a film class years ago, I was taught that you will get enough imagery and sound in a movie’s first four minutes to deduce the themes and tone for the rest of the picture. A beautiful color close up of smooth-rough stones by Sherry Bloom graces the cover of Berkeley poet Tracy Koretsky’s new book, Even Before My Own Name. Between the title and the cover image, and the complexity of earth-tones in that image, many of the book’s themes and tone is revealed in that wonderful poetry-way of not telling but showing.
The image of stones provides the leitmotif: stones are a central image turning up as natures’s pebbles, manmade gravel, artist’s marble, or grave-markers. Koretsky tips her hand with the gorgeous cover image, but like Andy Goldsworthy’s acrobatic nature-sculptures, Koretsky turns her raw materials into art as she takes the reader on a ride through her specific life journey yet invites us to turn over our own boulders along the way. She provides heft and uplift as she claims her physicality and comes to grips with its inevitable demise.
The main subjects deal with childhood loss, of a mother, of innocence, of friendships. And, indeed, the book has a trajectory of recovery and healing as the poet/narrator moves into adulthood. But, I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that this is solely a confessional work. The difference between a book of healing, which is mostly for the author’s sake, and a book that lifts into the realm of Art, is the craft and shaping of the material; this is the psychologically-oriented author’s challenge and responsibility if she wants readers to discover their own connections to the material in order to warrant a second, third or multiple reading. Koretsky accomplishes this in spades.
Enough is told to entice a reader into believing that he grasps the full story; enough is left out as well so that you cannot walk away with that thud of satisfaction that arrives when you feel you have had all your questions answered. Koretsky gives you just enough to keep you returning to suss out clues and nuances, the way a novelist seeds early chapters with careful foreshadowing. When this is done skillfully in a book of poetry, the poems echo off of one another.
Koretsky experiments and accomplishes mastery in a variety of forms. I had tremendous good fun figuring out her variations on sestinas, prose poems, near-sonnets, and poems that use space or typographical tricks to push them close to iconography. In “fade to white,” a devastating poem dealing with the tragic death of a child, the poem is presented in narrow, justified columns of text that push your reading of it downward in tense enjambments, thereby echoing the narration and heightening the emotion:
- I do not ask for details. I
- do not want to know, and
- besides, I think it is prob-
- ably none of my business
- anyway. A boy. Ten. The
- son of a friend. Another
- boy, also ten, best friends,
- next-door-neighbors, sliding
- full of wind down, down
- a snowy hill faster, gasp-
- ing, now breathless – god
- too breathless – now dead.
- One dead. Not my friend’s
- son, the other – and asth-
- matic. Dead on a hillside
- in the blinding glow.
- ( – from “fade to white”)
The form continues pushing the story for several columns of dense on-rushing type that raise questions about tragedy, shock, and shared grief. This poem is only one of Koretsky’s showcase pieces. As counterweight to poems of emotional tension, Koretsky offers others that are beguilingly spare. At one extreme is “The Day I Suffered from Temporary Incapability”:
- I am folded
- the ticking of the clock
- in pockets
- like fists
- against the
- In Pittsburgh
Even Before My Own Name deals with difficult subject matter, mostly on an intensely personal scale: mother-loss at a young age, incest or premature sexual advances, the pleasures and pains of childhood friendships, growing up and dealing with unhealed wounds.
The book is divided into five sections. As you proceed through them, you see the writer’s increased sophistication and emotional evolution as they relate to the same subject matter over a lifetime, refocusing, and, as she puts in a late poem “When The Call Comes: Notes Toward Revision,” revising. Her poem “With This Book, “ a near-sonnet, with fourteen 10-syllable/4 beat lines, expresses a welcomed release from the past:
- Once, were I asked to weave my tale
- I would have spun from lines of loss
- a loose net, twice-torn, bound to fail,
- and what was caught, no sooner tossed
- from open palms to jagged roads
- while mourning my own soil to send
- roots deep. No place to reap, to grow
- nor plant; no hay to safely spread
- and warmly dream a place called home.
- But here I braid strong strands of lore,
- ends firmly tucked and neatly sewn,
- at rest upon my smooth-worn floor.
- Good-bye you stones; I'm off to fly.
- Good-bye you loss. Good-bye good-byes.
This is a lovely poem; I almost want to use the word “pretty,” but that reduces it to its pure aesthetics. In the context of a book braving its kind of subject matter, the poem represents taking control over the past: it is what art can do therapeutically, yet here the subjectivity is transcended and the poem offers an enjoyable playfulness and levity. I particularly love those closing lines, and near couplet (the plural of “good-byes” is not an exact rhyme with “fly”), which is just a wee bit unsettling to let us know that healing and release are never perfect in their completion.
The last poem, “Vespers,” is both death-song and epitaph, simultaneously expressing the redemptive power of an observed life in villanelle form:
- Let me be willing to live my death
- and celebrate its coming.
- Let me say good-bye to myself.
- Let my withering fascinate,
- my whitening enamor.
- Let me be willing to live my death.
- Let me stop before the mirror and say,
- "You were something then, kid. Yeah, you were fun."
- Let me say good-bye to myself.