Friday, January 06, 2006

Satisfied With Havoc. by Jo McDougall. Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2004. $14.95 (pa)

In her fifth poetry collection, McDougall meditates on loss and the chaos of life. Within these spare poems she manages to capture complex relationships between men and women, parents and children, and parents bereft of children, with no clutter, no image wasted.

McDougall is showing us the top of the iceberg, leaving us to feel the body of it, below. Between the lines we see her struggling to hold back a monster of grief, a ghost that haunts these pages. In "Gurney," we see a hint of this ghost. The narrator is visiting her daughter, " the last stage/of her disease" And while in her daughter's room, "Fighting for my life/I water the flowers on the windowsill."

McDougall's poems are haunting and graceful with no pretense. In "Work," McDougall describes the writing life. "You think of the day's work you have done/ how you lowered yourself into it slowly/ as a coffin might enter a grave." The imagery is rich as crème sauce, something to be savored.

But there is peace in nature. In "The Crows of Mica Street," McDougall hears the sound of birds: "I receive their song in my ruined life/like scalding water in a new wound./ I walk on, redeemed." Snow, the land, animals and growing things all offer hope. After all, they are still alive.

And in the wildness of people, McDougall finds hope, and humor as in "The Boys From Brewer Bottoms," in which the narrator describes high school football players who'd "...grown up/defending their father's stills." "Envy and moonshine drove their brains," she says. "With those boys on our team/our high school won All-District in football/every year."

There is humor in these poems, and great wisdom. In "The Widow Speaks," McDougall tells us, "Here's something I've learned...It's not enough, but something." McDougall has a knack for taking characters who might, in other, less careful hands, come off as familiar. It's no great stretch to make a widow into a carrier of loss, but McDougall grants her characters life, puts a twinkle in their eyes, then steals it and gives it to us.

-Originally published in The Hollins Critic
* Yesterday I received a note from Jo McDougall thanking me for the review. She is a very nice lady, in addition to being an incredibly talented poet.

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