Saturday, June 1, 2019

Her Heartsongs - Joan Colby (Presa Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Her Heartsongs.  Joan Colby.  Presa Press.  Rockford, Michigan.  2018.


"....and they will be so young
They believe touching solves everything."

Joan Colby is brimming with innocent magic and experienced folly.  Her Heartsongs rings vibrant, if it were published by a big house (no offense to Presa Press, bless their cotton socks), everybody in poetry world would be talking about it.  Joan Colby is breaking no new ground, there is no experimenting here.  Instead these poems are reliable as a train, steady enough to be on tracks.

Joan Colby is not afraid of anything, much less afraid of going to a dark place.  Her brave poetry works in a straight line.  One foot in front of the other.

Colby has at least one solid gold, 24 carat, talking old school pure, line in almost every poem in this book.  It's uncanny.  These are knock you to your knees lines, kick you in the ass lines, gobsmack you with truth lines.  Every poem should have them.

Securing a Memory

In the passenger seat
Also known as the suicide seat,
That was me. You were driving,
One hand on the wheel, the other
Holding me. I already knew how this
Would end, that it would indeed end
And it wouldn't matter because I'd have
This memory. The pink sweater
I am wearing, fuzzy as how I feel
In this proximity to love. My own face reflected
In the side window while the dark
Landscape pours past, how we are not
Speaking in the immense blossom
That opens between us, night petals rank
And dangerous and seductive so that
My mouth tingles
Though we are not yet kissing,
Just driving, driving and I tell myself
Remember this moment, how it feels
Years into the future. This memory
Which settles on me like a hungry animal. You
Peripheral, to my left,
Left with its sinister connotations,
A profile. It's not important
That we engaged like teeth on meat
Or sawed our bodies until like trees
We fell and fell and fell
Into that koan of presumed
Silence. In that deliberate memory
I painted on the walls of all the years to come
I am always seventeen.


BOOM.  That's how you do it!  These poems are "coming of age" poems sans trite.  These are mature poems.  These are poems from the voice of an older woman.  Today's book of poetry couldn't help but think of the four sisters I grew up with.  Our home was a matriarchy, without question, and my sisters grew up under the influence of a battle-ax strong mother.  The sisters have always impressed me and reading poetry that reminds me of them, well, it's simply splendid.

Joan Colby isn't just spinning tales of growing up female, she is attempting to tell us all how to live better lives.  Colby isn't proselytizing but her sharp narratives always end up with us realizing something important, something worth remembering.


School lunch: baloney sandwich, plain. No butter,
Mayo, mustard. I am known
As a fussy eater. My mother
Thought people who liked eating were obscene.
Gross acts of bodies. When we shopped
She gorged greedily on fudge sundaes,
At home sucked broth in penance. Sometimes
She cracked walnuts and picked the meats
Daintily with a silver tool. I thought
The hollowed world would look like that
Irregular but perfectly clean.

My mother served boiled potatoes, unsalted lamb,
Tuna out of cans. I ate raw carrots
From our garden pulled directly from the dirt
And wild mint, spruce needles
Nectar sucked from phlox.

My mother worshiped restraint,
My father health.
I simply didn't know the taste of things.
Suspicion rose in my heart like flood waters
When Mrs. Adducci tried to feed me spaghetti,
when Mrs. Person made Swedish meatballs,
when the roadside cafe married eggs to grits.

At the dinner table I rolled my bread into balls
Pastel as the Sunday host I had to swallow whole
And flavorless, an air-puffed masquerade.

Now, I wield seasonings with abandon,
Try any new taste, and strangeness,
Seagull wings, snake's tongues, a wealth
Of passion fruit, coriander,
Saffron and sea salt.

I dip thin oblongs of meat
Into delicate Thai peanut sauce.
Far away, my mother takes out her teeth
Dunking bread in milk without sweetening.

I pummel stone-ground dough into a shape
For rising. It doubles like love given for no reason
Here's what I have learned:
That death in life is never
Knowing what is good.


BANG.  Get that into you!  Today's book of poetry would be a liar if we didn't share our immediate reaction to typing out these Joan Colby servings.  We freaking love when we get to the end of a poem and feel enthusiastic.

Today's book of poetry racked our small brain trying to bring to mind another poet who so thoroughly and clearly presented a moral framework, an emotional blueprint?  Nora Gould comes to mind.  Both Gould and Joan Colby speak of the earth in specific geography, they name the birds, the trees, the air.  Then having painted a necessary background they both add the details of blood and heart to take it home.

There is so much Today's book of poetry admires about Her Heartsongs that we've already tasked Milo (our head tech) with tracking down any of the following Joan Colby titles:

The Seven Heavenly Virtues
Ah Clio
Pro Forma
The Wingback Chair
Properties of Matter
Selected Poems
Dead Horses
The Lonely Hearts Killers
The Atrocity Book
How The Sky Begins To Fall
The Boundary Waters
Blue Woman Dancing in the Nerve
Dream Tree
Chagall Poems
Beheading the Children
Eleven Poems

By our count Joan Colby has 21 books of poetry.  That's a great body of work by any ones count.  Today's book of poetry is convinced we've just uncovered the tip of a very large poetry iceberg.

The biggest discovery Today's book of poetry has made since starting this project over six years ago was the number of poets and publishers at work in the big wide English poetry world.  Astonishing.  Our latest research shows over a thousand poetry publishers, small and large, in Canada and the United States.  And the best of discoveries in that big world are moments exactly like this one.  Joan Colby's honesty is illuminating and her wit sublime.  Also like the sisters.

How to Love

Mockingbirds in the pines wake me. Light
Scuttles through blinds like lovebugs
Smearing windshields, fuzz of bliss, doomed thistles. See
What they're in for, how they
Solve themselves.

Here's how we ought to love: the way two children
At the beach begin with shells and wet sand.
How their hands dredge a moat or pat
Turrets into being. Watch this, one says,
Knocking the whole thing over,
They laugh and run into waves
That find both coming and going easy.

The way sun blankets them
While breakers keep collapsing. Nothing
They need to explain.


It is the first of June here in the capital and everyone has on sweaters, and heavy socks.  Today's book of poetry even saw a winter coat on this morning's coat rack.  It is colder than it has any right to be and I fear I've woken up in November.  Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, wanted to shut the furnace off before the morning reading because when it jacks into service it gives the entire building a Ornette Coleman shake.

Joan Colby raised our spirits this morning.  These poems are surprising, too simple to be this good.  But make no mistake, Joan Colby can burn.  She says something worth knowing every time she lays it down.

Joan Colby

Joan Colby

Joan Colby, b. 1939, has published widely in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Gargoyle, Little Patuxent Review, New York Quarterly, Pinyon, Poetry, South Dakota Review, Spillway, The Spoon River Poetry Review, among many others. She is the recipient of two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards, a Rhino Poetry Award, the new renaissance Award for Poetry and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Literature. Colby has published seventeen books, most recently Carnival (FutureCycle Press, 2016). One of her poems is among the winners of the 2014 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest. Colby is currently a senior book editor with FutureCycle Press and an associate editor for the Kentucky Review. She lives on a small horse farm in northern Illinois with her husband and assorted animals.

“Emotional intensity and large sympathies characterize this collection, which is underwritten by an intelligence itself as fiery as it is sharp.”
      -Philip Dacey

“More than almost any poet I know, Joan Colby follows John Keats’ advice to ‘load every cranny with ore.’ Whether she’s mining salt or emeralds, the reader will be the richer for it!” 
     – Dan Veach

“Colby is heir to Penelope, muse of shiver, drafting darkness and light into a haunting tapestry of wisdom and truth.” 
      – Richard Peabody

“Joan Colby knows how to take anything familiar and have us readjust our view of it. Her energy never flags as she transforms nerves into a tapestry or delves into the structure of a foot and tells stories that go where we’d never have expected them to go. There is a probing character to so many of her poems, as they give up layer upon layer of meaning or suggestion. Such a pairing of imagination with the craft to frame it is a rare gift.” 
      -David Chorlton

Joan Colby

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  1. "gob smack you in the truth" there's as good a line as any! and i love the poems too.

  2. What a great review! It's official: I am now enrolling in the school of Joan Colby. And may I say how refreshing it is to read a reviewer who appreciates woman and their writing and their perspectives. Good writing all around here.


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