Green Daughters
Diana Pinckney
Lorimer Press
ISBN: 978-09826171-6-8

Reviewer: Alice Osborn


          In Diana Pinckney’s world, the ocean holds secrets known only to God and the residents of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. Pinckney’s fourth book of poetry, Green Daughters, is a love song to salt marshes, pluff mud, conch shells, and packed sand, where the locals aren’t letting on they know something about mermaids. The titular “green daughters” derives from Ovid, who said that mermaids emerged from burning Trojan galleys to become “green daughters of the sea.” This collection of mostly narrative poems, with a number of lyrical pieces scattered throughout, explores the author’s personal stories and an unusual mother/daughter relationship: the mother is a mermaid and the daughter is human, a foundling who adapts to riding on the backs of dolphins and eating tern eggs, but who yearns to venture where her fish-tailed mother cannot.

          Throughout the book, Pinckney toggles between the ethereal and the everyday. A perfect example of this juxtaposition is in “Out There,” a poem about the first female astronaut to lead a spacewalk while working on the Endeavour shuttle’s solar panels in 2008. She has the bad luck of watching her tools float away, and as they do, the vision both connects and distances her from the blue world below (“She waits out there/ in that familiar and terrible/ territory one AA member fears/ another has entered”).

          “After The Holidays” is one of the few poems that takes place inland. Through her sharp images, Pinckney captures the feel of a South Carolina small town with its many churches, boarded-up storefronts, and chained dogs. She also captures how a child imagines objects in a photograph coming to life after he or she looks away.  

Driving New Year’s afternoon to the coast, just
beyond Bishopville, S.C., an unpainted
house with candy canes dangling from bare maple.
Medic truck and police cars claim the yard…



…As a child

I imagined people in a snapshot beginning
to move after I looked away. Did the tall
girl holding a chain, black dog at her feet,
boy in the middle, corn-silk hair
catching the sun that slid

off of the tin roof like a dull knife, turn
once we passed, headed down
a road with more churches
than God could ask for, Zion
and Free Will opening
doors to dust, Jesus
promising to save.

          In “Trawling,” the speaker trawls for stories and not for shrimp (this poem would have been ideal as the first poem in the collection as it establishes the Lowcountry setting and the speaker as a real “green daughter”). Here is another example of Pinckney using well-placed images and color to breathe awareness into her narrative.

Cousin Julian curved a red tool over shrimp
backs, lifting shell and tail
with one flick. Water steams
and Mother’s at the sink

with a toothpick,
deveining black lines
down the drain. After crushing
claws and shell with a nutcracker—Cheating,
said my aunt who hammered a mean
green coke bottle—Father pried
then discarded a crab’s
blue-gray triangle
from the underside, picked up his highball
of bourbon and told me, Don’t
eat the dead man
. I

have disobeyed my father, consuming
the past, cutting
through layers to reveal the heart,
chopping lives into vignettes stirred
from the guarded black pot—…

          When we meet the mermaid a few poems into this collection, her presence is made even more charming after we learn that she longs for a daughter (“The Mermaid Wishes for a Daughter”). In the persona poem, “What the Island Grocer Hears,” the speaker hears both mother and daughter complaining from his store and singing from the sea. In a few quick strokes, Pinckney has ushered the reader into a beach store on the Carolina coast.

You oughta stand by this cash register
and listen to customers jawing
about everything from yellowfins
to sunburn. I’d rather
run a hardware, but
stock rusts up down here. Stick
with chicken wings, Oreos, white bread.
Most nights, after locking up, I cross
the boardwalk, roll up my jeans, shuck

as much day as I can and wade
into surf, ghost crabs scattering.



I swear, there’s singing
past the breakers that stops me
dead. Maybe it’s what
that girl, barely high as my counter
was going on about—a lady with
a fishtail singing—’til her momma
shushed her.

          In “The Mermaid Gives Her Daughter a Ride,” Pinckney crafts another ecstatic leap into mermaid world, a piece which aligns perfectly with the other poems in this collection.  

As a baby she took to the sea curled
on my belly and we floated. My tail
splashed, she blinked salt,
laughed when I drew
her below into the pulsing
caves of squids. On the bottom
next to the double-eyed
flounder, she wore my red cap

and held her breath until her lungs
grew gills.

          After this little girl grows up, she gains a lot of attitude and speaks “teenager,” which we see in “The Mermaid’s Daughter Wonders Who Her Mother Is” and “The Daughter Hooks Her Own Ride” (below). But along with her independence, the daughter still wants to know where her mother is.

Dolphin pods, the hottest school in the sea.
And the ride—Oh, my God, what a bangin’
trip—my hands around the fin, legs
squeezing that smooth tight body,
twisting like crazy, flying, then diving
so deep I go dizzy, black, slip off
and they’re bumping me back to the top—
or we’re acting. He flips. I land
on the back of his buddy. Ride ’em
till I can’t hold any longer. They nudge me
home, turn south. From the rock,
I look out for a fin, a tail. My thighs
ache for days.
 
          Diana Pinckney’s elegant, enjambed phrases, present in each of these poems, as well as her supple images of living at sea level invite the reader to keep turning the pages, as do her emotional high notes of loneliness and longing. This poet has created a remarkable collection that will inspire readers to hear the gulls, taste the salt, and squint their eyes for a glimpse of a fishtail out beyond the breakers.


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