Monday, May 19, 2014

Talismans - Maudelle Driskell (Hobblebush Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Talismans.  Maudelle Driskell.  The Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series, Volume VIII.  Hobblebush Books.  Brookline, NH.  2014.

Wait until you get a load of Maudelle Driskell.  This woman writes poetry like Wayne Gretzky played hockey, an entirely disproportionate amount of glee amazingly apparent in her contrails.

Forget bad hockey analogies.

Try this, Maudelle Driskell's Talismans is so satisfying to read because it makes the reader feel instantly smarter.  Driskell's poems have the effect of making the reader feel they've just joined a new club: those who've read Driskell, and to feel sad for those who haven't had the pleasure yet.

Koans of a Different Order

I make it a practice to write with my finger
on every fogged motel bathroom mirror,
squeaking out messages overlooked
by hotel staff. The oils of my skin battle
water molecules for years to come,
bringing truth to naked strangers.

Your dog will make a gruesome discovery.

The Gideons left their bible in that drawer.
You may choose to open and read it.
The millions of skin cells dusting the mattress pad,
find their way into your body with each breath,
and I am stamped across your forehead
as you face your naked self in the mirror.

If you can hear your heart beating, there is a problem.

You lean close to line your eyes, trim your nose hair,
check the back of your tongue for mucous,
or your neck for hickies. We will always have our moments.
And so it should be. This is how the truth comes
upon you, when you are naked, staring and startled.

Saliva is a carcinogen when swallowed over time.

Time is catching you. Once it overtakes you,
there is nothing. Subtract the hours in this room
from the hours you have left. Go and get that book
from the drawer. Tear two pages out for each heartbeat.
When the two covers touch, you're gone.


As first books go, this is a stone-cold killer.  Every page has a pure hearted assassin of poetry at the helm.  I promise joyous enthusiasm to everyone who reads this book.

Driskell is the most human of human beings and her compelling poetry tells us so.


Here is where I cut myself.
Bicep. Horizon of the nipple. The skin
puckers, lips perpetually waiting.
The white-handled knife
is long gone but the purple ridges remain,
tighten to a kiss when I fold my arms.

I think of it as a fossil
from the pre-metastatic era.
The ridges humping the skin on my thigh
trouble your finger like a knobby starfish
or the business end of a sea cucumber.
The hardness in the center is my large
leg bone. This thing went deep.

Before I knew she was crazy,
before I slept with the dogs on top of the attic door,
which opened up, to be safe, for our first date,
I took her to the quarry on my Yamaha Seca
to swim and picnic. I was walking the bike down
the loose rock path to the edge of the water
when she took off her shirt and her shorts
and she beckoned. It was nothing really, but to me
it seemed like a promise, my first promise,
and watching her I slid down, fell
beneath the motorcycle.
The muffler burned me to the meat.
I couldn't cry but I couldn't stay,
and I rode all the way back to Athens
with the wind worrying the wound.


Maudelle Driskell offers up these poems as parables, the illuminated steps to her kind of knowledge. These poems are have a sense of humour that is distilled, trickled down through the bones of the rest of us into gold.  This might not be as good as it gets - but it is very hard for me to imagine a better debut book of poetry.  This is up there in Suzannah Showler territory, her debut book, also this spring, Failure to Thrive (ECW Press), was equally out of this world good.

Trailer Fire

Finally, an alarm; no longer an emergency, just a removal.
The mobile home was half gone, roughed and sooted.

Stan and I went in with full gear and oxygen, a gurney and body bag.
I could smell it through the mask, a new smell, peanut butter cooking
on an overheated curling iron, the smell of fat and hair.
I took the feet, Stan the shoulders. On three. We lifted.

Expecting him to be heavy, and not wanted to be weak,
the only woman in the firehouse, I pulled hard.
But most of him had melted and fused with the sofa. He tore
and came away in parts.

The report
would read "Decedent caudally separated."
Stan wrote that way in reports. When it happened,
Stan's eyes turned white all around, then he vomited into his mask.
And for an instant, I felt the lightness and confusion, then I was clear.
I led Stan outside and helped to bag the cushions, the pieces.

There had been a rightness to the moment, above everything,
the way a guitar string comes into tune:
sometimes you can hear the harmonic,
sometimes you feel it when it comes.


Driskell is bold and brave, clever and witty, panache with precision.  These poems will make other poets jealous.

Gender politic raises its' head in this collection and like every other sea she swims in Driskell skips through this with aplomb.  Driskell keeps her ship and the readers' excellent attention at full throttle as she navigates the shallows of our misconceptions.

Fine, fine work.

Maudelle Driskell grew up in rural southern Georgia and lived most of her adult life in Atlanta where she was a founding editor of The Atlanta Review. She now lives in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, and is the executive director of The Frost Place. She holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College and she is the recipient of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, awarded by Poetry and the Modern Language Association. Her work has been published in many literary reviews and anthologies.

"Maudelle Driskell calls these poems "talismans," and talismans they are. Alternately sleek for the long flight or overflowing with the abundant images of a bleak but fecund world, the poems read as if every word has been considered, weighed, and found worthy. Such care to create such beauty. From chemotherapy's to Elvis's wart impaled upon a stickpin, to Herman Melville's superfluous obituary, these fine poems all ring true."
     —Leon Stokesbury

"That the imagination is not just a faculty but a force of nature is nowhere more apparent than in these fierce, protean, startling poems that stare, unblinking into the deepest wounds, and, with rural certainty, know that the harrow waits for creatures who run toward the light. With vivid, indelible images, Driskell's powerful intelligence and playful invention reveal and revile our naked vulnerability, and, against it, the desire to become 'the pit of the fruit that breaks / teeth.'"
     —Eleanor Whilner

"At its heart, this is a book about the autonomy of the body—its surprises and horrors, its desires and sexuality, its implacable urges toward nonbeing—and the inability of the will to control it. 'My mind is all alone in the dark,' says Driskell in these astringent, highly polished poems. Her eye is fixed as much on the specifically detailed, paradoxical world as on the approximate discoveries of selfhood.  The body interferes and determines: a mysterious, evolving entity caught up in what the poet sees not only in herself but in animals and other humans around her.
     Quirky, often grimly funny, Driskell's clarity draws the reader to her insistence on the uncertain "other." Mature and provocative, this is a stunning first book.
     —Cleopatra Mathis


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