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Book Bag: ‘The Last Blonde’ and ‘Lovely’


Friday, January 05, 2018

THE LAST BLONDE

By Mary A. Koncel

Hedgerow books/Levellers Press

smith.edu/poetrycenter/wp/koncel

The cover to Mary Koncel’s new poetry collection, “The last Blonde,” is a tip-off that there’s some odd stuff happening on the pages inside. It’s an image of four rows of doll faces, women in veils and kerchiefs with pert little noses, arched eyebrows and frozen smiles.

And the prose poems of “The Last Blonde,” Koncel’s third collection, don’t disappoint. The Worthington poet mixes humor, whimsy, melancholy and a bit of the surreal, often in first-person narratives that also find hope and meaning in small moments of day-to-day life.

Koncel, a longtime instructor at the Jacobson Center for Writing at Smith College, is also a staff member with the American Wild Horses Campaign, a nonprofit group that works to protect wild horses and burros, primarily in the U.S. West. Not surprisingly, animals are a frequent topic of her poems.

In “Memoir,” for instance, an encounter with a mustang becomes a metaphor for the knocks one can take from life: “Today bucked me around like the mustang mare did in my / pasture. Ask me about nature, and I’ll deny that I’ve / ever seen any color except abundant shades of black and blue.”

Yet the poem’s narrator also confesses that she appreciated “the moment of flight” and suggests the experience was a helpful reminder that one must learn to role with life’s punches: “It might / have been … her way of telling me that today / would be a day when everything seems to be pushing in the wrong / direction and nothing is soft or beautiful.”

“The Last Blonde,” published by Levellers Press of Amherst, includes a number of absurdist poems that Koncel uses to riff on that theme, such as “The Last Blonde Contemplates Motherhood,” in which the narrator seems to wish for a living Barbie doll for an offspring: “Her daughter would be perfect. Perfect / name, perfect blonde hair.”

Koncel also offers several poems titled “Letters To The Husband” that explore a range of emotions — love, worry, anger, regret, hope — amid sometimes strange images.

In “Letter #38,” she writes “Dear Husband, / Next year I intend to make you my Valentine. That’s the plan. I / promise that I’ll tip back my big juicy heart until it spills all the / microscopic red hearts swimming inside, each one engraved with / your initials and mine.”

 

LOVELY

By Lesléa Newman

Headmistress Press

lesleanewman.com

Former poet laureate of Northampton Lesléa Newman has explored a number of subjects in her poetry, essays and children’s books, sometimes devoting a work to a single theme: lesbianism, mother-daughter relationships, childhood, Jewish identity.

In her latest poetry volume, “Lovely,” Newman examines the full range of those ideas, in a journey that begins in childhood and moves through her life to chronicle a wide range of experiences with nostalgia, humor, sadness and hard-earned wisdom.

In “First Death,” for instance, she recalls the casual cruelty she and her elementary classmates displayed to a girl who’d been treated for cancer and had lost her hair: “The sight / was so frightening it made someone shout / ‘Bowling head! Bowling head!’ and not one of us / had the courage to not join in.”

The poem concludes with Newman’s testimonial to her long-vanished classmate: “Mimi Schechter who deserved a little respect from me / Mimi Schechter whose tear-streaked face I still see.”  

 “1955-2001: A Hair Odyssey” is a funny look at the different ways Newman has contended with her curly hair over the years, including trying to straighten it while living on a kibbutz in Israel as a young woman — a quest she shared with her fellow American roommates.

“The next morning, we are all up at 4:00 / fighting over the one outlet in the room / having flown halfway around the world / just to learn how to straighten our hair.”

Newman also includes a number of poems inspired by topical events, including the death of 50 people in 2016 in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida (“That Night”). 

Perhaps the most haunting of those poems is “Wedding/Funeral March,” based on a news story about the suicide of a Moroccan teenage girl who had been forced to marry a man who raped her.

“Here comes the Bride, so terrified, / Broken and battered and made to abide. / Throat full of bile, she trips down the aisle, / Her shame and her sorrow inflamed by his smile.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.