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POETRY REVIEW: Kelly Cherry

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Where Short Lines Meet the Fold:

REVIEWED: Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems by Kelly Cherry

(Louisiana State University Press, 2007)

Kelly Cherry, the Poet Laureate of Virginia (2010-2012), was the first recipient of The Fellowship of Southern Writers Hanes Award for Poetry in 1989. Cherry was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and grew up in Chesterfield County outside of Richmond, Virginia. She spent the bulk of her teaching career as a Midwesterner at the University of Wisconsin before moving back to Virginia to guide poetry’s fate for the commonwealth.

Hazard and Prospect: New and Selected Poems, the eleventh book of poetry by Cherry, is a short collection of her past work and conveys the definitive experiences that molded Cherry’s voice navigating the intricacies of womanhood in verse.

kelly cherry southern poetry

The first chapter, “The Family,” includes poems that hinge on Cherry’s relationship with her parents. Her mother’s crystal swans, her father’s Alzheimer’s disease, and a poem that negotiates the loss of both parents is presented in a kind of sonic calligraphy. She writes about what her parents are missing in death in “How We are Taken”:

How deeply we are taken by the world,
and all its glories—how it draws us in,
… a clear sky across which the virtuoso
sun (this image reminds me of my father)
…like sentences
that draw you in and take you where you never
expected to go and wish you could live forever.

Cherry’s first marriage and eventual divorce to sculptor Jonathan Silver (1932-1992) elevates the mood, despite the repeated illumination of loss. Her fond words for Silver and the joy of a good relationship shine throughout this small set. She revisits the buzz and anticipation of first love with the simple confessional language of the heart in the memorial poem “Wishing I Could Bring You Back and See Things More Clearly This Time Around”:

I wish that I could bring you back, and you
would be as young as you were then,
excited about the world of art…
…I was enthralled by every word
you said, on any subject….

Cherry’s feminine depth and fearlessness is clearest in the “Adult Education” chapter. “The Almost Baby,” a poem about a miscarriage, is masterful in its juxtaposition of elegance and gut-sinking thump:

The baby dropped down the flue
of my body, dead
as a sparrow.
I love you more than bone loves marrow.
I love you more than God loves sorrow.
Tomorrow
I’ll eat toast and think
about you…

Another work in this chapter, “Adult Ed. 101: Basic Home Repair for Single Women,” is a lighthearted look at the feminine anatomy and the nuance of male female relationships. In one stanza, she writes that the power drill,

is a prerequisite for almost anything
you may wish to do: hang curtains,
pictures of your last lover,
your last lover.”

The final chapter contains new poems about Cherry’s past and current home, Virginia. It begins with an ode to William Byrd, who surveyed the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina. The first poem in the chapter, Byrd’s Survey of the Boundary: An Abridgement has stanza titles from which Hazard and Prospect gets its name. Throughout this chapter, Cherry designates her heritage in an acute way that delineates the South from the North, embodying much of the current myths of Southerners en masse. In “The Heat Down South (Richmond, 1955),” Cherry writes,

The heat does something wonderful
and difficult for Northerners to grasp.
It says a silent benediction,
…A Halo of humidity,/surrounds the porch…
…there is nothing to keep you from
imagining a wiser nation might
arise among the fields and woods....

Hazard and Prospect reveals the inner working of a woman’s heart, from first love through disillusionment and profound loss. Cherry upholds the South and embraces family, displaying a feminine resilience and sporting a light, humorous touch.  


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