Welcome to This Week in Books, where we highlight books just released by small and independent presses. Books have always been a symbol for and means of spreading knowledge and wisdom, and they are an important part of our toolkit in fighting for social justice. If we’re going to move our national narrative away from one of hate and fear, we need books that display empathy, that help us understand different points of view, that show us we aren’t alone, that feed our spirits.
This week, we’ll look at The Light on the Wall (Main Street Rag, January 2017) by poet Jen Ashburn. This collection, her first, opens and closes with poems about her schizophrenic mother and dysfunctional family, a frame around the author’s life and travels.
In the titular poem, Ashburn uses description (“the evening light soaked everything/in the color of plums—not the skin of plums, or the flesh,/but that deep orange-red that bleeds in between”) to build tension until she arrives at the moment of describing her mother tucking her sheets in around her, restraining her. The poem ends simply, in the same way earthquake mechanics are simple, but devastating: “My mother/was breaking. Even the light on the wall knew.”
The poems that follow offer similar earthquake-like simplicity, whether about family or the time she spent traveling in Asia. She explores the discomfort of being a tourist in a poor country; the environmental effects of development; different ways of not only living, but being; and the complex web of emotions—tenderness, anxiety, love, fear—that bind all families together, functional or dysfunctional.
Originally from Indiana, Ashburn spent four years living in Japan and exploring Asia. She earned her MFA in poetry from Chatham University (also my own alma mater, though we attended the program at different times) and has made her home in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Her poems paint the landscape of the American Midwest as vividly and freshly as they paint the Mekong River in Vietnam.
About the collection, poet Nancy Krygowski writes:
These poems of displacement, of a woman navigating the strange territories of a dismantled family and travels in foreign lands, will wake up your eyes, and Ashburn’s voice—sure, steady, and surprising—will leave you praising and echoing her words: “Let me remember even when I’m hunched with work, when I’m old and crumpled with life: This life. Thank you. Please.”
Each poem rings out its own clear note like a temple bell, lingering even after the reader turns the page. Ashburn shows us that even in the face of darkness, the unknown, or terror, there is room for human kindness and connection. The kindness, the connection, may not always be perfect or pure, but neither, comes these poems’ gentle reminder, are we. And that is perfectly okay.
Logo art by Max Winter.