Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #12, Winter 2004-2005]

The Burning Point
By Frances Richey
White Pine Press, 2004

Reviewed by Karla Huston

A burning point is the spot in which fire flares into a conflagration or the place in which something hurts or the point in which memory smolders into awareness. In this book, which won the 2004 White Pine Press Poetry Prize, Frances Richey often examines memory and art and the way art can transcend and allow one to imagine, affirm and perhaps revise a history and a life.

Often the characters in Richey's poems are the ones her narrator speaks of in "Walking Man."
There are the people made of ash
who leave behind their limp sweaters,
their empty shoes,
who walk the night on club feet

They are frequently the subjects of others' paintings and the subjects of Richey's imagination. Some are mothers and fathers; some are sisters, daughters and sons. They are often broken or looking for affirmation and even forgiveness as is the narrator of many of the poems.

Richey's poems seem to be impressions of a reality, her language lovely and rich and filled with texture, color and light. In the poem "The Return," she says:
What do you say when you've forgotten
how the grass smells
married to the dark
the soil crumbling in your hands?
When the sun makes a bed for you to lie in?
When a voice you've never heard
has missed you,
singing down your bones --
it's taken to long to get here.

Of the thirty-two poems in this collection, thirteen are written about the paintings of Wyeth, Renoir, Chagall, Giacometti, Vermeer and Charain. While Richey may write about the work of these artists, there is little in her poems that is straight description. Instead she uses these paintings as places of consciousness that then become points of self-discovery and even self-affirmation.

Richey uses art as the entree to her own imagination. In the poem "Lovers in Blue," after the painting by Chagall, she asks,
Why can't I make them what I want?
Would it offend Chagall if instead of lovers
I saw sisters, the small gloved hand
touching the face
of the one who in life
does not want to be touched

Richey's narrator continues to imagine a different situation from which this painting might have been created, her scenario filled with both the artist's words and Richey's own longings. This is a extended poem, covering several pages, stanzas that slip in and out of time and place and even desire but ending in nearly the same place: "Can I make them what I want? / Would he mind if I see in them what I missed two views of the same face."

In another piece, Richey's narrator thinks about her mother's stories, stories that were often both true and not true. How would a daughter know which? "Mother's stories are like that, fantastic / in their disappearances, futile heroics, / villains wrapped in furs." The poem creates its own work of art, its own collage as the narrator traces her own experiences as both mother and daughter.
I was a woman
with a child of my own
the night I drove back roads
to the turnpike, leaving
behind the cardboard girl, that fiction
mother wanted me to be.

The narrator examines both the real story and the myth created by both her mother and herself "from some other story she didn't know / or couldn't tell."

According to the author's biography, Richey left the business world "to pursue a more personally satisfying life." Now she teaches yoga and meditation. The connections between Richey as yoga practitioner and poet are frequent. In the poem "The Yoga Lesson," Richey's narrator speaks of Loli who is pregnant and whose center of gravity keeps shifting. Yoga is a Sanskrit word for "link," and it requires the participant to bring a certain quality of attention to its practice. In Latin, yoga is religio. The practice of yoga requires an almost religious attention to breath and body and mind. For a woman who has made life-altering changes, Richey must have experienced the same sort of shift in her center. Perhaps this is why she quotes Sanskrit when she says, "Lead me from the unreal to the real." Perhaps this is what poetic attentiveness means.

Many of the pieces in this book wrestle with memory. Some might find writing of the past to be trivial with more than a slight nod to hubris. Some might find that writing from memory is a way to control what once seemed out of control. Some might find a certain ability, an impulse or maybe a compulsion, to revise what might have been. Still, what is important seems to find its center of gravity in Richey's words. "What courage it takes / to see that way, to hold what isn't there / and let it burn your hands."


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Karla Huston has published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in several state and national publications, including The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Wisconsin Review, Cimarron Review, Nightsun, The Comstock Review, Rattle, and others. She serves on the board of directors for the Fox Valley Writing Project and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

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