Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #8, Fall 2002]

Walnut from Waterloo
By Sue De Kelver
Marsh River Editions, 2002

Reviewed by Karla Huston

Come, wonder in the "wanderland" of Sue De Kelver's poems in her book Walnut from Waterloo. These poems will fill you with nostalgia, while you commune with spiders hiding in the cool shade under the porch, while you caress your cheek with lamb's ears, and while you dream of almost hang gliding over the Poconos. As you become "aware of the zense of it," you will understand the evocative power of story, of naming the thing that scares you, of finding your redemption in the garden, or if you're knee deep in winter snows, at least the gardening catalog.

These are poems redolent with memory of childhood, whether seen through the child eye of the poet or the eyes of Claire, the narrator's niece. The details of these poems evoke the texture of a time long gone but still alive somehow in all your musings. You will discover saddle shoes (black and white like mine?) and ponytails (how they swung when we walked). You'll remember when Popsicles came in pairs, a time before "Fritos had fat" and a time when watching Howdy Doody and Mr. Bluster were the only things to do after school. There are imaginary friends aplenty, ironic jaunts with the Farmer in the Dell, and enough Catholic angst to keep everyone in limbo forever.

In the poem "Before Spiders Got Scary," you are reminded -- through De Kelver's detail -- of a time when life was simple and spiders were the only
things of which to be afraid. The narrator tells the reader that:
This is a day when our only work is to play
when we don't creak if we crawl
and hiding is just for fun.
A long time ago when a 45 means music
and war is a game of cards.

There is story in these poems, the resonance of authentic language, the true voice of the teller, a tale in every artifact and act, the recalling of what has passed before. In addition, the poems are rich in the texture of language: the fuzz of flowers, the creep of monsters, the crack of ice. When you read these stories, you will feel heat: that first kiss, the first taste of mortal sin; you will feel the cold. For example, in "When the Shivering Stops," a girl is found drowned, and the poet serves as witness to this horror -- "this 12-year-old locked beneath the ice":
I try not to see her,
face down in the Pike,
bloated and frozen.
I want to picture her
giggling into the phone,
savoring the last days
of Christmas vacation

And witness to the men who must enter the hard water to break her free:
How divers must smash through
the solid blue surface,
struggling within the current,
dragging armfuls of empty ice to shore

And finally witness to the
factual story [that] breaks in his voice
like the stiff, floating fingers
of Jennifer's hair.

There is sadness in these poems and loss: "Fathers and grandfathers who die\ and children hiding their fears, daughters who leave home"; imaginary friends who comfort and protect, like the narrator's friend Johnsifer who "appeared after my aunt and her two little boys/ came to live with us when my uncle went crazy and / tried to kill her with a knife."

There is silliness in these poems: "The Bowling Balls of Fremont" are left outside perhaps to meander someone's front yard, where the poet surmises that this might be "a place of therapy, to discuss lives/ spent knocking others around;/ a daily meeting of BB for those/ who've spent too much time in the gutter;/ a retirement home for odd balls." The narrator congratulates a friend for turning fifty, reminding him, "There's plenty of time for fulfilling dreams." And the challenge now is to "Grab your backpacking guitar./ Strum a tune for Tiger Lily and Tweedle Dee."

And there is a renewal in these poems, perhaps the best of them: the poems about gardening, the reconnection to soil and soul, the tender loam of rediscovery of that which restores you. In the poem "In the Meantime," the poet considers how her salad garden never delivers all the green goods at once, and challenges herself and anyone else who might complain to enjoy what you have, "Sit down, shut up and eat what's on your plate." In another poem, De Kelver asks, "What's the point of a flower?" then reminds you that while they exist to delight, you -- we all -- exist to help them survive. In the poem "It's All in Your Timing," the poet bemoans the fact that it's still February when she dreams of a fair trade-off for the chill of winter:
But in February's dungeon
when heart and hands are blue
when the white shroud
of sameness surrounds me
when ears ache from silence
and root foods stick in my throat
then you could have me
for a ticket to Tahiti
or three, sweet spears
of fresh asparagus.

Finally, in reading these poems, you will find yourself remembering when or pulling a wrap tighter around you to protect from the ice, the snow, the harsh realities of life. But in the end you must give yourself up to the diversity of the salad, enjoy the explosions of wild flowers and marvel at the meanderings of the Ouija planchette or those happy wandering bowling balls of Fremont.


Walnut from Waterloo by Sue De Kelver is available from Marsh River Editions, M233 Marsh Road, Marshfield, WI 54449.


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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