A review of Out from Calaboose by Karen Corinne Herceg

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Out from Calaboose
New Poems
By Karen Corinne Herceg
Nirala Publications
ISBN 9-788182-500853, 2017

There is a sensual languidity in Karen Corinne Herceg’s new collection Out from Calaboose. The poems seem to start from somewhere deep in the body—a place below skin and bone. Though rooted deep in human emotions – love, loss, pain, and loneliness, there is always something bigger than the individual: the natural world, and even beyond that, a kind of permanent space of peacefulness against the shifting chaos of human flaws. The poems speak to a shifting personae, a “you” that wavers between co-conspirator, collaborator, and confidante (the reader perhaps), but also at times as antagonist – a brutal oppressor: “I fear you’ll carve me/
like a main course” (“Valentine: 2-14-88). There are many iterations of love, all forms echoing with loss—the loss of a parent, the loss of a partner, the loss of the self, moving between desire and grief.

The collection has five parts, which are linked by the theme made explicit by the book’s title. A calaboose is a one-person prison that, in this book is self-fashioned – created out of retained pain. The book uses that pain as a catalyst towards a kind of very subtle transformation that takes place slowly, in the spaces between time and place:

And all the spoils and discount deals
cannot replace the history of my sweater
sitting alone an ancient culture away,
never to come home again. (“In My Travels”)

The poems move across a very broad terrain, like a travelogue through space and time, through seasons, and across milestones. Even at its darkest, and it does get very dark at times, there are flashes of humour in the wry commentary; the poems turning back onto themselves:

None of it will
further your career
or keep you warm
or safe from scrutiny.
It will repeat you
into the future
of the already by-gone
 (“Sprung”)

Traditions and societal norms are suspect: another type of calaboose. This includes marriage, which is critiqued in poems like “Epithalamium for a New Age”, a feminist twist on the idea of praising the bride on her way to the marriage bedroom:

Rather you strip me down
and yoke me stark
pare and parse the lace

Anthropomorphism, which appears throughout the collection, isn’t confined to the natural world of sky, cloud, leaf, earth, and morning light, but also within a range of animals that populate the poems. There are indignant cats, cackling birds, mangy dogs, and frost-bidden creatures in the snow. Animals provide a panacea to the emotions they evoke as they remind the reader that these animals are actually shapeshifting humans. The focus tends to work from the personal outwards – a secret, childhood hurt becoming a bleeding earth, to clouds bearing witness, to a universe “observing us with indulgence
” (“Nano Thought”). The imagery remains consistently fresh as it moves between love, dysfunction, disorder and loss, though always with the eye towards freedom and transcendence. The constriction created by abuse, loss and the associated anger and guilt is one of the biggest prisons of all. In the section “Loving Hands”, the parental pain reaches its apex, as the work takes on a Plathian quality:

my freedom hell-bent granted
unpunctual
like
a posthumous degree. (“Maternal Elegy”)

Here we’re faced with the heart of pain: parental abuse, infidelity and secret siblings, and death–the ultimate abrogation, but it is the recognition that the prison starts with these psychological constrictions that begins to open the poetry outwards towards the final section, which is also the title section. The section “Out from Calaboose” functions almost as a response to the previous four parts, the poems forming a series of reimaginings, re-contextualising, and re-sculpting:

If I could thrust my hands outward
ripping through embryonic clay
I would sculpt the lives
we did not have
(“Home in You”)

Words change the past to something new, and though there’s definitely a confessional quality to in the writing, Herceg breaks open the paradigm and provides a metapoetic look at the power of words to change the past through the permanent absolution or opening they leave behind:

And this poem
will still teach
long after I lose
the will for instruction. (“After Me, The Poem”)

Out from Calaboose is an ambitious work, rich with mythology, politics, ecology, and psychology. The book moves through darkness and light, trauma, loss, desire, pain, but also, and always, leaning towards freedom from these things. Once gets the sense that this freedom lies almost entirely in the power of words – the poems themselves are the keys.