Hammer and Landslide, an Exhilaration

Reviewed By

Watson’s skill here, as on so many pages, is to be accessible and kinetic while seeing something new in a common experience. Her sight is so unique, her inner editor so keen, that she brings a prismatic freshness to what eye and her “dogged heart” confront.

Dogged Hearts by Ellen Dore Watson, is original and gutsy, with work that startles with its jittery syntax. It is fearless in its approach, making the familiar profoundly new. Watson is the author of three earlier collections of poetry and has translated a dozen books. She also directs The Poetry Center at Smith College and is the Poetry and Translation Editor for The Massachusetts Review. Her immersions in the variables of language help make Dogged Hearts so gripping.

“E. Zabala, Age 55, Multiple Fracture, LOC” contains a fresh look and feel for snow, no easy task for a word so abused by over-use and trite association :

Perhaps he is Basque, though he doesn’t speak it now.
He’s dreaming snow in skeins as they slide him clothed
into the scanner, ice chilly and bright. Outside he knows
night air wears warm on skin. Thrown from a horse
or fallen from a ladder—how can he not care which?
Your name is Edur, you will remember yourself in time.
He’s thinking he’s on vacation from Captain Left Brain.

Skein, of course suggests wool, yarn, what is knitted, knotted, can provide warmth, can unravel, none of which a scanner can literally do. “Captain Left Brain’’ has left all right, leaving “some kissing left in his mouth” at the end of the poem , leaving the reader kissed by that skein of snow inside that dream, almost but not quite prepared for the violence of “Speaking of Rearranging” and other poems to come:

A sad simple wish regarding one’s own face
is one thing entirely another when a fist
does the job. I feel like scrambled eggs, said
Junie the day she biked home to find a new
mommy. Have you ever woken to discover
the claw-footed furniture has migrated,
cookbooks elbowed in among the fiction?
Perhaps boredom is thus proven universal.
Turning outward, pity the poor rocks. Not
the ones skipped into cool invisibility but
those bloodied by the verb ‘’to stone.’’ Like

The fist did the job tragically well, and kicking also works, as in “Suddenly Solaris:’’

Dolores’s innards stewed, sawing back and forth.
Ever since Father kicked open that door: he never
laid hands on her but his feet. Door never shut right
after that, and her insides acquired barbed wire.

“Her insides acquired barbed wire ” is a brilliantly composed image, forcing the reader to see the interior of a person raggedly torn, dripping blood, which is what those insides would do if they –see it!—literally acquired barbed wire, and what a wound to the exterior of the body can feel like inside. Count all the words I have used to discuss those five. Compact brilliance is enhanced by the fact that the word “blood,” used much too often by less imaginative writers in need of drama, does not appear in the lines above or in the rest of the piece. Restraint and daring are on devastating display. The happy ending of “Suddenly Solares” makes reading it bearable, the way one wants a novel, hard-packed with struggle, to go gentle on its worthy characters before the ride is over.

The ride in Dogged Hearts covers vast terrain, and does so with a sure hand on the reins. Paradox and contradiction are among the many vitamins essential to literature, mirroring reality, providing marvel and hope. “Who Can Say” is a finely-framed compilation of contrasting visuals as the speaker is “bound for home” on a ferry, reckoning, after the poem’s sure start, with :

Inner overtures. We’re slowing. Water on the hull is loud lace
as the moon makes its way to me over black tulle. I defy you
to paint this. If as I believe, everything counts, there’s more
of pleasure. After long none, there is a man-but who can say
who he is? Delicious, the fear the ocean holds in the dark.

This is beautiful, and “loud lace,” and ‘’black tulle’’ are among the reasons why, as anyone who has watched water from a moving boat at night will be reminded. That lace can make sound is part of the –“dare I say it?– assertive magic woven with deft hand. Everything does count, making the reading not always easy, but always generous. Watson’s skill here, as on so many pages, is to be accessible and kinetic while seeing something new in a common experience. Her sight is so unique, her inner editor so keen, that she brings a prismatic freshness to what eye and her “dogged heart” confront.

Watson’s defiance has a force Muriel Rukeyser would have recognized and celebrated, and much of this book brings to mind the best of No More Masks, the classic collection edited by Florence Howe and Ellen Bass, and recently reissued. Like many in that anthology, poems here have a relationship to nature that is dizzying and sharp. “Because Walking” is a convincing example:

Because walking is a yielding, what to do but look?
In the frothy stream. A square-headed boy in waders,
full of purpose. Early onrush of violets knitting
the green. Lanky woman tra-la-la-ing, either impish
or loony, we can’t know, but we wish her her wishes.
The earthworms are out in force, the dogwood newly

naked. Seeing—the first kind, vast and made of seed-
flash—brings us to our knees. Rage, too, can do this :
hammer and landslide, an exhilaration. Like a coyote’s
release—ragged, tentative, then the cutting loose. What’s
wrong with being called an outcry, a fearsome clanging
that marks not simply bruises, but the long road, the map,

the map lost, the lost? The flit of what we can have?
And always there is the slow re-leafing, until one day
the window, the one we can’t –no matter what– see into.
Time to lean back, shoulder blades to shingles, slide
down and sit a bit in the dirt. Breathe all that’s left:
cellar damp and petal-breath. Good to have come on foot.

Gather in the rugged loveliness of Watson’s particular ‘’petal breath. ’’ Her creatively brave wisdom is a sturdy, valuable song.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →