Book Bag: ‘Vanishing Points’ by Gary Metras; ‘Continuing Education’ by Lisa Colt 

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2022 1:24:41 PM

Vanishing Points by Gary Metras; Dos Madres Press

 

Gary Metras, Easthampton’s first poet laureate, has long made the natural world a central part of his poems, including the woods, fields and hills of the Valley. It’s a place he’s often celebrated, noting the change in seasons and his own love of the outdoors, especially the meditative experience of fly fishing, something he took up over the last several years.

But in “Vanishing Points,” his eighth collection, Metras, a former letter-press printer and publisher, introduces some darker notes to his free-verse poems, lamenting the changes human civilization has brought to the world, while he also contemplates his own mortality, as in “Winter Temperatures.”

“Tonight in New England it is only zero, / again. Cold enough to dream of death / in the blue-black hours when nothing stirs, / when the snowy owl hides in a tree / and wraps wings around its eyes ...”

In “Song of Coming and Going,” the poet contrasts the eternal cycles of nature with the fragile, ephemeral matter of human existence: “And when the stars fade in dirty clouds / their glint will catch / on the ripple’s inner curve, / will be breathed deep within / as the last wave passes, / and no one will know the light was ours, / that we were here and left.”

Even in “Narrating the Pond’s Night,” an elegant ode to nature’s sounds and rhythms, the narrator, as he fishes in a small pond and pulls a bass from the water, is struck by the smell of “death sprouting under his fins.” The fishing trip also ends on a bleak note: “Darkness has swallowed / the human way out.”

And in “Straight Lines,” Metras is horrified by a huge, bulldozed swath of land in Africa, cleared so that oil can be detected by satellite: “Except for what is made by man, / there are no straight lines / in Africa, not in river, tree trunk, / or stare of lion.”

But Metras also brings some dark humor to the collection in “Bad Day,” in which the poem’s narrator, as he drives through an unnamed city, finds a hearse following him for block after block. The driver, growing nervous, begins to imagine tombstone epitaphs — but then a truck runs a red light in an intersection and

“T-bones the hearse, / ripping its side, / and the coffin bounces on asphalt, / the lid breaking open, / the body flying to the sidewalk, / dying a second time.”

“Vanishing Points” is divided into four sections, with the first two covering more brooding ground and the last two offering some contrast to that. The poems in the fourth section, in particular, find understanding and meaning in love: for a partner, for children and grandchildren, for a dying parent.

Joy can come from brief, sudden moments: In “First Spring,” the narrator recalls cupping a bit of dry snow in his palm, while his granddaughter “blew the white petals into my face / and laughed.”

And in the collection’s title poem, Metras finds happiness in the shared warmth of a longtime relationship: “Love, when it stays, is traceless ... // The one coarse piece of cloth drapes us both / and softens on our curves so our lives fit well. // When two people journey far enough into the distance / they merge.”

 

Continuing Education by Lisa Colt; Off the Common Books

 

Lisa Colt, who was born in 1930, has been many things in her life: a nursing student, a high school teacher, a painter and musician, a mother, a wife. Colt, of Easthampton, has also been a poet — and now she’s published her first collection, “Continuing Education,” which includes poems that date back half a century, including titles she previously published in a variety of journals.

Colt presents the collection like a school schedule, with 10 chapters titled “History,” “Science and Nature,” “Art,” and other subjects. But since the poems offer snapshots from her life, there are four sections titled “History” — and one called “Continuing Education.”

Her mostly short, free-verse poems offer equal measures of humor and poignancy. “Sacred Heart” recalls a day in Catholic school when the 11-year-old narrator, hearing the older girls “talk dirty” in the bathroom, “scratched ‘funk’ on the cubicle wall, / then prayed for absolution.”

But a certain Sister Ann Cordelia merely tells her she’s spelled the word wrong and tasks her to say 20 Hail Marys. “Suddenly I loved her / passionately, immaculately, / more even than I loved my mother, / more even than our Lord.”

There’s also an ode to the Belle of Amherst, “On Learning That Emily Dickinson’s Hair Was Red,” in which Colt, who once taught art and English, summons the fierce spirit of Dickinson’s writing and its contrast to her reclusive lifestyle and the demure image from the one known daguerrotype of the poet.

“I want to talk about fire, about how — / when the writing was done, / cup of tea gone cold beside her — / she unwound the coppery coil at her nape, / shook it out like a paisley shawl, torching / the Homestead and the village beyond / with the shock of her unpinned hair.”

Wartime scars: In the poem “History,” Holt recalls how her late husband, Henry, was shot down over occupied Belgium during World War II on his first mission aboard a B-17 bomber; he survived serious injuries, then with the help of resistance members made it back to England. Years later, he would grin at mention of the story and say, “It’s all history.”

But, Colt writes, “I’ve watched you through the years, seen how / when I reach for your hand / or when one of our four sons / hugs goodbye, you weep.”

Yet in “Harry in the Garden,” she also celebrates her husband, a “beloved believer in order,” and his determination to cart away autumn’s leaves, “with plastic bag in one hand, / rake like a saber in the other … your gift to me: absolute certainty / that for as long as leaves shall fall / you will be there to catch them.”

Given her long life, Colt has lost any number of people close to her and watched as one war after another has followed WWII. But in “Reflections,” she writes of finding a certain peace and acceptance with where life has taken her and with her own body, from “battered thighs” to “deeply fissured face.”

“My belly is a beachball / and silverfish nest in my hair. / The moons on my thumbnails / are fading. / But I am happy / at last; who cares / what I wear to the wedding?”

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


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