“I was never very good at following through,” writes Anne Graue in her debut collection. From Kansas to Kenya, these poems explore different things that hurt and haunt: nostalgia, loss, motherhood, and place. In this retrospective-tinged book, a reckoning with the past shows us that the details are key to making and unmaking ourselves. And even when our roots in a place run deep, we are not indefinitely grounded.
The collection takes us first to the small-town Kansas of Graue’s upbringing, a place where “everyone watches everyone to keep from thinking about the heat” (19). It’s a place safe enough for a preteen to ride her bicycle to buy records and for kids to roam; it’s also a place fraught with the danger of expectations and secrets kept (or not). We see the confluences of heat and dust and yearning and tension move in waves through the sestina “Small Towns in Kansas,” as “tomorrow’s broadcast whispers through the town streets” (19).
Graue’s poems reveal the oddity of the worlds we move within, even those we view as familiar. In “Diving In,” she writes of growing up with mothers of her generation who
white shirts, vacuumed thick carpets, roasted
ruddy beef, adjusted the vertical hold
on television sets, watched bodies returning
each night hoping one name
would not appear (6)
Do they fight for normalcy in the face of full-blown war, or try to deceive themselves into contentedness? Perhaps both. Meanwhile, their children, attuned to the tensions of their environment, dumpster dive for the means to build spaces of their own. After all, this town offers “nothing much to do/but dive in and find what we needed” (6).
People as much as places pose complications, if not outright threats. Early on, we meet Rick, the first “real” boyfriend and driver of the cherry Cutlass that hosts much of the relationship. Whose voice was “full and/plum-colored velvet, and my ear/filled up with promises” (21). Whose affections feel questionable at best and certainly take a toll, leading to a fresh take on the Snow White story wherein the maiden must learn “how to tell a viper from a prince.”
Incremental shifts blend one hurt into the next. Kansas of childhood becomes Kansas of grief at the deterioration and death of a complicated but still loved parent. In a particularly heartbreaking description of dementia, Graue writes that “sugar runs through fingers like a sieve//just as letters glide toward her eyes/ without recognition” (33). This blends with the speaker’s own helpless grief of a mother at her child’s self-harm that no pleading can stop, but that she hopes love will ease. Instead of pleading, they cook: “we chopped/onions and let them seep into our eyes” (66).
One of Graue’s greatest strengths is the vivid precision of her descriptions. Hearing Neil Diamond described as “mumbling sweaty blue/notes about Cherry” puts me in mind not only of the teenager treasuring her illicit record on a summer afternoon, but the warm fumbling of first romance (72). She captures a sort of sinister degradation wrought by an unfamiliar environment in “Dewy grass slapped her ankles wet and shiny;/her leather sandals liquefied sliding her feet” (58) and evokes truly haunting imagery in describing a pond as “encircled by the mournful/call of the black and white//cranes” (60).
Individual poems shine as well. “Self-Portrait as Moon Clichés” freshens up the feminine-moon trope with poignant self-awareness: “I pull the oceans/toward me and then push them away.” In “Little Ghosts,” the complicated nostalgia for childhood summers manifests as locust shells, “little ghosts of what they’d been”, the same as identities shed in the process of self-discovery.
We briefly depart Kansas—and the U.S., for that matter—in Section 3, with a short run of international poems (Kenya and Cyprus). Though they fit with the broader shift in perspective of the section, which displaces the speaker into unfamiliar territories including parenthood, having so few poems set abroad create a bit of a teaser. Readers are left wondering about the rest of the story; what depth might be added to a collection immersed in a specific place by spending a bit more time in a different space?
Nonetheless, Full and Plum Colored Velvet follows through on what it seems intent to do: take a searching look at all the little things, people, and places that we might overlook as we keep our focus on living. From the strangeness latent to a familiar childhood to that of being a parent after so long being the child, these poems hold haunting moments of one life that will linger with us for a while.
Jocelyn Heath is an Assistant Professor in English at Norfolk State University. Her poem “Orbital” won the 2014 Alison Joseph Poetry Award from Crab Orchard Review. Her creative writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Poet Lore, Sinister Wisdom, Flyway, Fourth River, and elsewhere. Her book reviews have appeared at Lambda Literary, Grist, Tinderbox, Southeast Review, and The Lit Pub. She is an Assistant Editor for Smartish Pace.