Why We Go By Twos By Linda Stern. Barefoot Muse Press, 2015
Review by Frederick Kreutz
If you want to appreciate fully Linda Stern’s poetry, bring your Old Testament, your understanding and appreciation for iambic pentameter and sonnet, (and some other special rhyme schemes) and a sensitivity to poems framed as narrator/dialogue.
The volume collectively entitled “Why We Go By Twos” is divided into two sections—one of twenty-two poems named after the poem “The Color of the Sea” and a second section of seventeen poems titled “Music of the Spheres” after a poem of that same name.
Her major theme is examination of togetherness becoming apartness, the loss and helplessness that accompanies the separation of others growing up and moving away from us or others growing old or dying, and leaving us who want so much to hold on.
Most of the thirty-nine poems set up a narrator/speaker/single side of a conversation intimating another person could be listening to what the poet reveals. In nine of the poems, “you” is in the first line, four more times it shows up in lines 2 or 3, and five times in lines 4 and following. In seven poems, “we” or “us” are the focus words; in seven others “I” as speaker sets the frame of the work. These poems become missive, reflection, or scene that invites the reader quickly and deeply into this one-sided conversation. Many of the poems feel like an interested observer eavesdropping on a sincere and emotional moment.
Two images she frequently uses to support the sadness or terror of separation include animals and water. In “Sin Offering, Solomon’s Temple” two turtle doves are bought for sacrifice, calm at first, they become frantic before their death (“The little heads are twisted off, a blur of expiation”). In “The Small Beasts Thrive” eighteen Bengal tigers loose from a preserve are shot by law enforcement. In “Hawk” city mice are prey for a hunting hawk, “The end sharp and raw for the jerking thing.” while the poem also reflects, “You said we were like those wretched mice/with so little to say about what awaits us,…” Again in “The Dying Lion” a once commanding king of the beasts is “Shivering at night in his old age…Lust is over and strength. … But the work of all mortal souls, who keep/That last vigil, that last night, holding fast/To the dream of a quickly fading past,/How they suffered, what they won, what they weep/To leave, each act of grace”. And in the title poem of the volume “Why We Go By Twos” the animals not collected on Noah’s ark, “…watched the ship recede atop the waves,/clutching their infants in the rising flood,/knowing they were not chosen to be saved.”
Water images also support the theme of separation, forlornness, and death. In “Oregon” someone who has moved away sees from the window the uncomforting “wide grey Columbia (river) flat against/the wide grey sky, ships…inching up river behind a scrim of rain.” In “Swimming Mitzvah” stanza one begins “When you were little…/Swim to me, swim to me, we said…” and stanza three begins, “We watch as you grow, you strain,/every movement aimed/at the man you want to be.” Situated between those lines in stanza two the poets wonders, “How does the soul fare, far from that safe harbor, helpless/mauling the beast as best it can…” In “Years” the narrator remembers, “You are standing near the ocean/…I run to embrace you but/it is too late/You have already faded/into the waves. … you are gone.” And once more in “Your Death” “It’s not been so long that you death/can seem brought home here to rest,/ ……your death still is lost/on the boiling deep seas, in storm/after storm, through the towering/crested waves of my grief.”
The final poem “Writing an Obit” chosen I assume on purpose to close this collection offers advice on summarizing the closing of a life, putting the finishing observations on someone’s (perhaps our own) passing. There is an air of sincerity mixed with distance and objectivity. The poem opens “You need the basics—birth date, parents, place.” Once done with the obvious however, “But start with this:/the major deal, the big event. Be firm but kind. We need to know.” The poet advises whatever the details show end not in, “…despair./More this: A life of passion, love, and fame/is not beyond us. Maybe we too can/someday write it, dance it, play it, build it.” She then finishes the poem with two lines that echo not the ending of life but its eternal continuation, “While we finish our morning coffee, while/we turn the page, and turn the page, and turn.”
Occasionally humor and a wry wit surface in a poem. In “Practice” the narrator writes, “You have a dream of music in your head. …I think you should play hard and loud and fast—“ but then adds her request, “but maybe not today, the Sabbath day. …Leave me some quiet time to also seek God’s grace.” In “The Husband’s Apology” the man admits, “You know I never mean the things I say. … I guess you’re right in calling me a mule.” But then upon further review, the man concludes, “The more I think of it, the more it seems/I’m really justified in my attack./ It’s true you are the woman of my dreams,/But really only when we’re in the sack.”
The poet is adept at many of the stricter meters and forms of poetic expression. She seems particularly drawn to stanzas, iambic pentameter, and sonnet forms. Inside these organization, her themes and subjects are most apt for poetic introspection, but in some cases I feel these tight poetic patterns inhibit expression rather than support it. It reads more as compliance to the rule rather than fluidity of expression. It creates rhymes like “death” and “heft” (Failed Adams) and “bereft” and “heft” (Off Montauk Point) which feel contrived rather than fluent. Sometimes to maintain a rhyme scheme, lines at the end of stanzas are broken mid phrase and have to jump to the next stanza to finish (Color of the Sea, Practice, USO Recording, Comforting the Mourner). This makes the lines harder to read with flow and continuance. When she chooses to write outside the strictness of rhyme and meter, we come across “The Banana Palm Poems from India.” This poem, albeit less serious in topic and tone, are a pleasurable, lively, fluent, unfettered but still well organized and compact series of seven vignettes. Here is where I find Linda’s verse at its freest, fun, and most engaging.
If you want to appreciate Linda Stern’s volume “Why We Go By Twos” bring your patience and rereading skills, for every time you peruse this volume (and you should read it several times over), your will find more depth of imagery, more interconnection between the poems, more to understand about separation and apartness, and more appreciation for this collection she has put together for us.