Cambridge Book Review

"Signposts: New and Selected Poems"
By Frances May
Black Hat Press, 1996

Reviewed by David Steingass

From the cover of "Signposts," which shows the author in front of "Fog Woman" totem pole in Ketchikan, Alaska, these poems give us an elder driven to present the world as she felt it as a child and, somewhat reluctantly, a woman, wife, and mother. Nothing is "more than the truth" (from Frost's "Mowing") which "would have seemed too weak." The result is more than refreshing.

"Signposts" presents thirty new poems as well as selections from four previous books: "The Poet's Cat" (1990), "The Summer I Was A Horse" (1989), "Tell Me About the People" (1985), and "Night Letters" (1971). There is something ancient and vatic about the voice in the short lyrics like "God's Truth," "Yard Sale," "Home Made" ("Semen has more power / than iron"), and "You Cannot Come to Me. . ." May ponders the process of perception through sensory details raised to the power of metaphor, as in this conclusion to "The Geode":

Cracked open
you might see
its once-molten heart
now cold crystals
transformed from rage
to this stone-harbored

A handful of poems are sensual and wickedly funny. "Satisfaction Guaranteed," "No Sex in the Cemetery," "Memorial," "Northern Exposure," and "Prairie Chicken" each provide a generation of social history. "Satisfaction Guaranteed" is a poem about a woman grown lonely enough to order "a man / from the L.L. Bean catalog." Her testimony is that the company can be taken at its word, "that L.L. Bean men never get tired."

Frances May idolizes music. Music first gave her a glimpse of the world as miraculous and embodies the way the world sometimes can become magical. Poems like "Violin Lessons" and "Music Comes to Light" capture this feeling. In "Carried Away," "music is water with a clear voice, / . . .the sea in your loins." Music (and its sister, dance: "Dancing will undertake you, / carrying you in its current") carried her, Frances May says, to poetry.

Something wonderful happens when these poems blend narrative, mythic, and lyrical elements. In poems like "The Summer I Was A Horse," the author calls back enchanting moments of childhood. In "The Old Bull and the Electric Fence," the narrator, a kind of domestic minotaur, sees his pasture as Eden. He thanks the "god of the cornstalks" for "the bolt of lightning / around my fragrant kingdom":

I see you daily with Eve,
bristling under second skins
on the blind side of lightning,
roiling between fire and water.

Still, his needs are small: "I am soft on the grass / and water only for an apple."

There are fine poems in this collection. Frances May leaves us with an energy we remember from childhood when we knew animals could talk, and that what they said could reveal the universe.


David Steingass lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He makes his living as an artist in schools and as an arts and writing consultant. His fifth book of poetry, "Greatplains: A Prairie Lovesong," is forthcoming in 1998 from Heavy Press, 1928 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53202.

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