Almost Home: New and Selected Poems Issue 161 080912

Almost Home: New and Selected Poems, by Sue Scalf, soft-back, Blue Rooster Press,  $16.95 (www.Amazon.com or Blue Rooster Press, 1410 Seventeenth Street South, Birmingham, Alabama 35205)

Almost Home showcases poems from seven of Sue Scalf’s former collections, as well as 17 new poems.

Anyone who has ever thought he or she would just never grow up and get away from home, then spends the rest of his or her life trying to get back—emotionally or spiritually— will relate to Scalf’s newest collection.

To find the simpler, more innocent and “straightforward” times, Scalf often uses the universal image of nature, in which “summer is triumphant.” 

She names parts of the natural world—honey locust, mullein, thistle, vetch, cherry, and wild verbena—as her primary background of place to which she lures her reader.

The poet wisely knows that in ways we are already there, both in our poetic imaginations and who we are in our core selves:   “There is a sea in Eden, silver at the full. “  (“What the Moon Knows”)

Her poem “Perception” extends this theme:  “It remains, that house, that porch,/caught in a time-warp where places go/ that never were.  I visit it often, hear the swing,/the screen door, voices calling my name . . . I run across a lawn/lost in shadows, calling/Mother, Mother, I’m here.  I’m home.”

From her new poems, “Witness” shows a maturity and wisdom in the poet.  She cannot find the answers most of us have pursued in life, or else, she desires to deny Thomas Wolfe’s “You can never go home again”:  “One-by-one someone’s world is gone./Then ask, “Father-God,/what does all this mean?”  The answer:  “Silence,/and a flake of snow across a pane.”

Does she mean that we cannot know the “why” of our lives, the death of our homes, our places?  That we can only know the moment?  “Witness” is perhaps Scalf’s poem that best shows the struggle to understand, then the clearest epiphany—that we truly can’t go home again.  The poem also offers one of the best images for life’s mystery: “a flake of snow across a pane.”

Yet, ironically, the poet makes a case for the home that remains inside us.  Something others can’t see.  Those who come to visit the graves in the Alabama clay won’t find them there.  As the poet ends with the book’s title poem “Almost Home,” by saying, most likely “you will see little but wind/lifting a leaf, or hear some bird/far away singing in an updraft, tilting one wing and free./That little breath will be us,/lingering as long as we can . . .”

Almost Home is filled with visual, sensory images that draw the reader along on the search for self in “what used to be.”  A sense of innocence in a world unto itself, the people and places as much a part of the personae as skin and bone, the finding of forgiveness and the dissolution of regrets, and the celebration of life—baskets and baskets of apples, the shine of blackberries or an August morning when “Wet grass ignites./The orchard . . . brimming with fire . . .” (“August Morning”)

For those who follow Scalf, they will find their own memories of childhood are best brought back through poetry.  The child is unaware of the passage of time:  “I watched the fire,/unaware that time howled at the corners/and clawed at the door, unaware/that time would enter even here./The coal in the grate shifted, flared;/the room glowed with the red light of apples.” (“Live Coals”)

In Almost Home, the reader is often witness to the bittersweet process of growing up.  In childhood anger, “resentment curled like steam” for living in the “backwater . . . with grandparents” and eating potatoes almost every day. As a grown woman, however, the child has learned what it means to cook every day, “only for love.” (“A Gift”)

Now, she imagines herself a child again, sees her grandmother in the kitchen: “I almost feel her small shoulders/as I whisper words not lost forever,/Thank you/ for the fried potatoes.” The poet offers solace to the reader, as though to say, “It is never too late to love or to seek forgiveness.”

In Scalf’s often poignant, “apple-seeded,” image-rich, new and selected collection, neither is it ever too late to see and appreciate what we have left behind—and to know with a quiet joy that innocence and beauty still travel with us—such as the “the broken branch/of a pear tree, a scepter of blossoms,/wet and frothy with spring (“Love Out of Time”), which will perhaps write us a new poem—the closer we get to home.

Book Review by Bonnie Roberts