Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #13, Winter 2005-2006]

Waiting for Beethoven
By Laurel Yourke
Marsh River Editions, 2005

Reviewed by Susan Tollefson

I love Laurel Yourke's poetry because it captures the full spectrum of human experience, from joy to sorrow, from lightness to darkness. She told me this collection, Waiting for Beethoven, was written with an audience in mind that included people new to poetry. She hoped to entice such readers into poetry's pleasures with her warm, accessible voice and poems of everyday life.

She has accomplished her goal and much more, giving us jewels of apparent simplicity that yield rich layers of meaning. She achieves her effects by drawing heavily upon the natural world, and through her use of metaphor, sensory language, and the range of subject matter -- from smiling flowers to a magical polar bear her narrator sees in her office. She also surprises us with darkness of various forms surfacing just when the language lulls us into thinking everything is fine.

Her effective use of the natural world's splendors varies from an impending rain storm in the opening poem, "Waiting for Beethoven," to the swans in "Lake Furen, Hokkaido," to the hawk patrolling her back yard in "Wallace Stevens and the Hawk."

A master of metaphor, Yourke works the metaphor until all its sides and angles are revealed. Whether it's a poem about metaphor, "Milking Metaphor," where she confesses "Milking is hard work: Early mornings, / tired twilights" or "The voice of the sea pounds in time with the pulsing of your heart" in "Voyage of St. Brendan," she illuminates meaning with her deft weaving of metaphors into the poems.

The opening poem, "Waiting for Beethoven," captures the universal moment before something happens, made rich by the comparison between the hush before a storm and the "pause between the movements of sonatas." And that moment is exquisite with longing, not only for what happens next but for relishing the layers of the wait. "The interlude expands, expansive as a sigh." It's a poem everyone can relate to for we've all felt the charged quiet before a happening, relished the richness of anticipation. "The moment stretches, swells, elongates into / a silence heavy with sound." The ending lines almost, but not quite, release us from our longing with the promise of fulfillment, "the long instant / before the soft splash, / and then the thunder." But she doesn't release us fully; we are left with yearning.

"The Minnow" is my favorite poem because the reader takes a magical trip with the narrator, a trip of transformation. On the literal level, into a fish-like creature. On the metaphorical level, into a self freed of daily concerns and moving toward the water of pure consciousness. I believe it is a metaphor for the writer becoming a poet. The poem is full of arresting images. The fish, which at first appears in her dreams, is "Dark, small, slimy, it seems to leak foul juices," suggesting that muck is necessary in the creative process. And then, "One morning she finds the fish swimming directly toward the iris of her eye." This line delights with its surprise and venture into magical realism. The narrator is fertilized by its penetration and transforms into a "breathless, weightless" creature that swims "without a splash" toward "the starlight and the sea." The beauty of the closing image sends a shiver through the reader, makes her imagine herself as free, and lingers just the way a good poem should.

"Better Than Sex Cake" surprises with its juxtaposition of the lightness of the title with the ominous undertone of a winter morning baking where "... the yolk stares back from the bowl, / angry as an eye." The narrator's self-doubt surfaces through lovely, lyrical writing describing coalescing clouds "like winter skin" and a sun "spilling everywhere, / coloring everything, dazzling." But the narrator literally loses her grip and the bowl goes flying as she wonders "When they decided / you can't eat too many eggs / and why she thought / she could make this cake." Amidst the lyricism of a winter morning baking a cake is the moment when the narrator feels discouraged by the stricture of "they" and even doubts her own abilities to make a cake so bold as to declare itself better than sex.

Another beautiful poem is "Her Hands," which captures the poignancy of a mother's limited ability to protect her child. In the poem she can't soothe the pain in his ears, but the closing lines show the baby and mother crying "for all the coming lessons / on the limits of what her magic hands can do." Again, Yourke takes a universal and important truth for every mother and child and makes it so real we each stop and think to a moment when we couldn't protect our child. We wince at the painful memory, the wound lanced through the lyricism of the poem itself.

Yourke's poetry presents the moment we all yearn for: that instant of communion with the world in all its mystery and splendor. And we are made better for the contact.


Susan Tollefson handled publicity for a college for many years before moving to the farm community of Lancaster, Wisconsin with her husband Alan, her pug, Angel, and her cat, Cleo. She writes poetry, short stories and is working on a novel, The Laundromat.

Order Waiting for Beethoven from Marsh River Editions

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