Friendship has privileges, and for me that means getting a copy of my friend Tara Bray's new book Mistaken For Song before the availability date (a few more months). Tara won the 2008 Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize for this amazing book. (Okay, I'm a bit biased, and yes, I'm using her first name where I'd normally use the last name of whichever poet being discussed. I just can't get that kind of distance from a friend.)
I've read the complete work through twice now and am awash in images. One of Tara's greatest strengths as a writer is her use of the unexpected in her densely-packed images. For example, in the poem "On Starlings," she describes the title birds as "tree tempests, dazzlers, knuckle-headed saints." I love that use of "knuckle-headed," which in the context of the poem seems to arrive out of nowhere and yet be perfectly placed at the same time.
Speaking of birds, the book is chock full of them. A few years ago, there was a panel at AWP on bird imagery in poems. The danger, I suppose, being in the overuse of feathers and beaks in contemporary poems. However, the birds in this book rise well above (sorry!) any glimpse of cliche. Knowing her as I do, I know that Tara's fascination with birds is not used as a means to an end; instead, she has fully immersed herself in a first-hand knowledge of birds, well beyond the chance encounter. Here's a glimpse from the book's opening poem "Carolina Chickadees":
They whip and dip, sled quick slopes
of air, and I plead to feel them beat
upon my ear, chatter, tease me,
meek cheek-fires I want to swallow whole.
It is a new experience for me to read a book composed of poems I've watched evolve over the past several years. Tara is not just a friend, but a writing partner, someone with whom I exchange early drafts of a great majority of my poems. It is such an honor to see the poems now in their new home, living side by side, even though composed sometimes years apart. The arc of the manuscript is graceful, the stitching together of the poems almost unseen as each unfolds seamlessly into the next.
One of my favorites is "Rain," a poem celebrating marriage and motherhood. Here are a few lines that have remained with me since I first read them some time ago:
I am loved twice, two orchids, two glimpses
of the afterlife, two clearwing butterflies,
two fox sightings--twice scraped, twice owned.
There's only night and rain, husband, babe, sleep,
this black string of small good things.
The lens of this book is definitely the natural world, but at its heart, Mistaken for Song is a book about the incredible paradox of human life: that joy and grief exist in such close proximity, so intrinsically linked, as to be inseperable.