Her Heartsongs by Joan Colby
Review by Carolina Collins
Review of Joan Colby, Her Heartsongs, Presa Press (Rockford, Michigan), 2018.
With its large red stylized heart atop the piano accompaniment for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the cover of Joan Colby’s Her Heartsongs aptly conveys the themes of her most recent work, yet cannot begin to match her marvelous gift for imagery and narrative. Colby’s meditations on love, friendship, aging, and marriage are candid and hard-won, blending the pleasure and pain of love with the wisdom and scars of experience, always in language that is charged with honesty and ingenuity.
In “Her Heart,” the opening poem, the literal details about a woman’s heart become a point of departure for bringing new life to old clichés about love: “Consider where love resides: / In the red pump house where fires are continually being lit / And being put out.” Here the poet points out a supreme irony: “love / Should live in the mouth where its spirit can speak / Over that constant importunate echo.” Like Eavan Boland’s Against Love Poetry, Colby’s heartsongs seek to impart the reality of human love, its pain as well as its pleasure. “How to Love” longs for the innocence and playfulness of children who “dredge a moat or pat / Turrets into being,” only to destroy what they have made, without regret or recrimination: “They laugh and run into waves / That find both coming and going easy.”
A number of poems look back on youthful adventures with a soberer perspective. “Night Swimming” recalls moving into “water dark, cold, smeared / with starshine” at a moonlit quarry: “A squad car shone / Its lights as we dived deep, unseen.” Both girls revel in the thrill of the forbidden, yet the poem turns quickly: “Years later, the quarry dredged, / A sedan of murdered bodies recovered.” In retrospect, their daring becomes a story of initiation: “we swam /above their bloated faces, letting the water slide/ In a slick ambush over our small breasts, / How we could not then begin to guess / What would befall us.”
In other poems, Colby vividly addresses the challenges of watching aging parents in their gradual decline. In “The Crazy Mountains,” the poet walks the tightrope between the necessities of medical restrictions and the quality of life for one’s parents. A visit to her father in a Salt Lake City hospital after his recent amputation becomes an adventure for both parent and child: “I get the Caddy / Out of storage. We visit friends /On the Rims, cruise the city.” Somewhere along the way, her father confesses his deepest concern, yet his zest for life remains undiminished. In his new-found freedom, he directs her to stop at the forbidden Baskin-Robbins, and then to drive into the nearby mountains. Ultimately, the poet errs on the side of love and compassion, while the father breaks another taboo: “He gets the pipe out, tamps it full. / ‘In that place, they won’t let me.’” The final lines prove the poem’s tour de force, as she poignantly declares, “I’m here to let him.”
Colby’s poems on love and marriage are among the very best in the volume. In “The Farmhouse on Muirhead Road,” Colby uses the metaphor of carpentry to detail the frustrations of remodeling an old house: “Framing out the porch door, you / Curse this old farmhouse where nothing fits.” The work of trying “to fix what has never been level” becomes a fitting metaphor for a couple’s struggle to make a life together:
Getting it right is what we are about.
How years of leveling the joists
We struggled over, planing the rough words
Of quarrel into something we could live with,
Could come, over decades, to admire
Like the smooth hickory floors we laid,
The Turkish carpets, wooden blinds
Sanding ourselves into shapes that fit
The crazed, off-centered semblance of our lives.
Joan Colby’s Her Heartsongs is a splendid volume, full of memorable poems that celebrate “the double helix of self,” constantly flexing itself into some kind of human love, no matter how hard or hard-won.