Reviewed by Stephen Scott Whitaker
by Linda Blaskey
Mojave River Press
Paperback, ISBN:9781631200106, $17.99, 98pp, July 2019
In the past, I have reviewed contributing editors work, as well as work from our main editors, and I do so as evenly and openly as any other writer’s work. And I know many of the poet’s reviewed in the Broadkill Review, though I might add only usually in passing and or through email or social media exchanges. Because Linda Blaskey is the poetry editor for journal you are reading, I thought it best to get this disclaimer out of the way instead of hiding it at the end of the review.
Linda Blaskey’s debut collection, White Horses, from Mojave River Press, is as much about acceptance as it is about love and the darkness that meets us in fields, in kitchens, and in bedrooms. These poems about nature, friendships, the past, and family run wild with life, and Linda Blaskey’s honed lines chop up the landscape, natural, emotional, and spiritual.
Opening with “Sleeping with Dogs”, Blaskey frames the book with age, companionate love, and sleep. “Where once/ the thin blade/ of onion skin/ could not/ have found/ its way/ between us// now two dogs/ sleep curled/ like stepping stones/ connecting/ far banks/ of a stream”, Blaskey writes, reminding us that if we are lucky the end of our life will be full of sleep, and full of family, including our animal friends, passionate love having cooled. It’s a fitting opening for a collection rooted in the quotidian majesty of rural life, and familial joy. Blaskey’s poems are not the idyllic bucolic poetry of romance; her dark gothic streak shows us the simple grotesqueries of failing bodies, distant relationships, and the lure of the past.
White Horses is a collection that understands the Dionysian draw of earth, the pleasure of the physical, and the darkness of it all. Death lurks. Sometimes the threat of it is sleeping right next to you. The ending of “Sleeping with Dogs” is reminiscent of John Lennon when he sings “I’m Only Sleeping”, only instead of sweet psychedelic panoramas passing, Blaskey gives us the breath and rhythm of a coxswain, the long sleep at the end of our journey, death.Sleep is a motif throughout the collection, whether it is a woman waiting for her lover to climax so she can sleep, or how a partner turns over in sleep is the perfect metaphor for the long forgiveness in a relationship, which gets to the heart of White Horses; couples who stay together share a layered and rich emotional landscape. But sleep is also the call of aging, our bodies slipping into a drowsy fugue state as in “Nap”. “My husband says he’s going to see if any sports are on TV. /I say I’m going to see if there are any sports behind my eyelids.” There’s humor in Horses, and mock self-deprecation about aging, and bodies, and desire.
The early beats of White Horses tell a story of a long marriage, and Blaskey does not imply that length equates to prison or a trap, but rather Horses explores a realistic view of relationships, that it’s work, tough work, much of it upstream work. Horses hits these notes throughout, collaging together a picture of something that has become less and less common, a relationship that continues, despite messy partners, rancid sweat, and countless, thankless domestic chores. One poem deliciously implies that while making her husband’s lunch, the speaker represses a wish to castrate him, “one chocolate-covered cherry/in a baggie tied with ribbon/ snipped and curled/with the edge of a knife.” The impulse to sometimes destroy those we love is always there, though best transferred into a thankless domestic chore.
Blaskey’s not afraid to juxtapose domestic comfort with indifference, as she does in “We Do What We Can Do” where she ends with “Under her skin small pieces of ice begin to melt./She can feel it happening.” The poem is about chopping up ice, presumably on animal’s drinking trough, or a stream, or river. It is not important what kind of ice is being chopped because the ice is a metaphor/symbol of love. Whether one partner has cheated or deceived or committed some other marriage crime, we don’t know, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. It could easily just be time that hangs between the partners. The theme of the distance between long-time lovers rises up in White Horses, a haunted independence. Blaskey doesn’t wring her hands in guilt, though sometimes writes around it, but also directly addresses it, writing “marriage after a while becomes an over-stuffed chair that holds your imprint.” Blaskey nails it best in “Glass” where the speaker finds a piece of sought after beach glass. ”First there was obsidian/ churned in the flux and frit/of volcanic cauldrons.” Passion cools, as does glass, and becomes beaten down and roughed up until it is “scuffed like long settled love,/ it no longer reflects light or concentrates fire.” After a time, we simply become moving objects a domestic menagerie.
The middle sections of the collection, like a good rock record, riff upon the first, but focus on the most mundane of human conditions, aging. “One of us has a heart that beats all wrong,” Blaskey writes, about our failing bodies and our failing ventures. Strokes, diabetes, heart conditions, arthritis. These are the music of life’s ending composition. Life happens, and our bodies slow down, “This is how it will end I think— bones thinning to chalk— “ though the mind often continues with great speed towards death. Compassion and gratitude for the women in the speaker’s life shine through poems about aging and poems about caring for the living. In “I Am My Grandmother” Blaskey keys in on that irony of aging, becoming one of your relatives, which can be cruel or kind depending on your disposition. “I don’t have her diabetes yet. Or her hernia….At night, I, too, count each beat of my paper-thin heart until sleep comes.” The men who populate the emotional landscape of the middle poems are mostly distant and mostly uninvolved; silent, toxic, men who lean on the heavy lifting done by the mothers, wives, and grandmothers’ who keep families together and keep houses clean and comfortable. The men in the middle of the collection are silent, detached, lurking like ghosts, they peek out from the past. In “My Father Teaches Me Equality” the father simply watches his Cubs game while his wife irons his clothes. The setting recalls the earlier poem, “Nap.” The detachment of the speaker’s father resonates with the detachment of the speaker whose romance has cooled. Norms may have changed with the times, but Blaskey sharply points out that relationships are never really equal, there is always a pulling away from and a pulling towards, the tension that springs many of White Horses emotional/spiritual moments as relationships seek to achieve a kind of balance, even if that balance is between hate and love, or better yet anger and compassion.
Horses also showcases Blaskey’s eye and ear for nature poetry. The collection bounces back and forth across the country to the Ozarks to the midwest to the Delaware coast. But Blaskey is most at home in rural settings where “a combine sits idle in a half-harvested soybean field” or where “ grasshoppers stirred up from weeds leap onto your legs and arms.” Horses, as one would imagine, occupy a special place in the collection, and serve to showcase Blaskey’s sharp line work as is exhibited in “Pulling Through” where a horse “clips the green blades above the root/ he knows the cushion of spring/ new grass beneath heavy feet/ sniffs the air for turnips in the fall/feels his coat roughen/feels the staves of his ribs push to the surface.” It’s the music of the earth, the music of living, of work and of caring for life that Blaskey captures.
People are part of nature too, and besides family, Blaskey writes about her friends, both current and from the past, the living and the dead. If the early sections of Horses illustrate the icy reaches of human relationships, the latter sections illustrate the warmth of human compassion. From a farmer who watches his fields from his crutch, his leg taken in an accident, to the valor of veterans dead too early, to the “ wild man in doo-rag and denim,” to the old stoner friend from the 1960s, all the way to current friends, a raucous group of poets at lunch. Friends, like horses, dogs, pets, make all that heavy emotional lifting worthwhile.
Linda Blaskey’s debut collection is sharp as fence wire while also being as sensuous as rich farm soil, and corrals the wild countryside and bayside marshes and stares down human folly as we quicken and fade.
About the reviewer: Stephen Scott Whitaker is the managing editor of The Broadkill Review. He has new poems in Miracle Monocle, and forthcoming in The Scores, and Toe Good. His novel of weird fiction, Mulch, will be published by Montag Press in 2019.
(reprinted from Broadkill Review)