Jan '04[Home]


Kate Light's Open Slowly: An Achievement of Form

by Philip Miller

Zoo Press, 2003; $14.95 ISBN: 1-932023-04-6
. . .

Someone once said (James Joyce, I think) that what readers value is what they remember. If this is true, then Kate Light's recent book, Open Slowly, is valuable indeed. Lines read persistently resound in the mind's ear: "And you call it courage to encourage / the un-ideal, indulge the self-indulgent, / to redesign the wheel" ("Courage") — "I will never be at peace with this. Life is less / like its image and more like its husk / his body is a skull. Every daytime is dusk." ("At Least Three Nights") — "Oh, no a sonnet never swung a gate, / cracked a safe, or left a bomb disarmed" ("I Conclude a Sonnet Never Changed"). As the first, the title poem anticipates the work, telling us how to approach the book and each poem in it, but also how to begin to love:

Open Slowly

someone may be standing
on the other side. Open slowly so you know
you're swinging wide
of them, and then
step through.

A classical musician, how Light has brought these poems together reveals shrewd and careful principles of selection and arrangement. Written entirely in rhymed stanzas and fixed forms, the collection includes sonnets in sundry variations, the villanelle, the triolet. But she also makes use of free verse conventions providing, along with the pleasures and precisions of meter and rhyme, the less predictable conventions of free verse including variable meters, the page as field, internal rhyming, and sly enjambments which accompany her word play. Annie Finch observes, "Light's distinctive wit is at the heart of this book."

at your bone-body,
I worship the one great act;
a pact
to love
before dying out.

("Whale Bone Pelvis Moon")

Here lies my heart.
It's as simple as
that. It leads me, in art
and life; it is
that simple. It's making a pass
at you.

("Here Lies My Heart")

Light also organizes the collection by season, going from fall to fall, and seems to follow the attendant subjects (as Northrop Frye defines them, at least): fall — betrayal, tragedy and lost innocence; winter—death and dissolution; spring — rebirth; summer — union. The poems develop these themes dramatically and ironically, as in "Rules of Sleep," from the first fall section:

And not just chill to that hint of neck I've learned
To pull the errant comforter up onto—
But some future where no legs, at any rate not yours,
Entwine; some tragedy the tender night ignores  . . .

Underneath the thematic development of these poems is the necessary dramatic unity, the narration of an ambivalent romance, often an anti-romance, as in this hard-to-forget villanelle:

He came to her door drunk and stoned,
and glaring with slant eyes of hate.
He made her feel ravaged, dethroned;

but she kissed him. He staggered and moaned
And could not support his own weight.
He swayed at her door, drunk and stoned.


The grief of a relationship "with one who does not love // is…well, it is to live / a living death" begins the winter section:

The wandering monk . . . knows
          attachment blows
                    away like dust.
          Now I understand to want, to lust,
                    to watch the flickering needle: trust;
                              to wonder where he is, . . .


Billy Collins comments that "the step of her poems is light," but then compares her to Wordsworth. Light treats the subject of love—and lust—with a light hand, but always with an eye on the conflicts and pains of the everyday. She is earthbound, often satiric, always slant, in Dickinson's sense of the word. One wonders what a Romantic would make of this image of the narrator awakening beside her lover: "deep fogs of throat gunk clogging me like cream / clogs an artery" ("We Are"). Comparing love to greenery may seem old-fashioned until we hear:

The plant not watered is
the model of our affair;
the analogy's mine, the concept his—
the plant that feeds on air.

("Neglected Plant")

The title of another is a startling pun on miscarriage:

The child bled from me
before I knew I had
the child; which meant, you see,
no agonizing decision,
no sleepless going wild,
no invasion or incision,
no giving up the child.

("Little Miss")

These few excerpts may not do ample justice to Light's detail and particulars, nor to her achievement of form, not just her facility in form, but rather, the unity and connectedness of every poetic element. Open Slowly ends with a fall section, and there, as throughout the collection, it is the narrator's loss of innocence and her new-found knowledge and insight that resolves each poetic initiation. But it may be Light's lack of pretension and insistence on the sensible, on the real, that makes her work remarkable and needed, despite her protest to the contrary: "There is a world out there that's real and gives / regardless of some poem that doesn't live or lives." ("Anemone")

Philip Miller is a Contributing Editor [Masthead] on the magazine.