Beneath the Earth and Sky
Reviewer: Richard Allen Taylor
Eleanor Kedney’s new full-length poetry collection Beneath the Earth and Sky memorializes several of the author’s family members, living and dead, with the latter far outnumbering the former. She draws our attention first to her brother, Peter, to whom the book is dedicated. In “Harmonica,” she opens the collection with this passage:
When it was clear my brother
wouldn’t kick his drug addiction
and return to all the things he was great at—
baseball, tennis, downhill skiing—
he still played the harmonica.
Once, at a summer wedding, in the lull
between the toasts and dessert
he took the band’s mic,
tossed his curly hair to one side …
The poem goes on to describe how Peter played and how their mother “stood and clapped” as the song “took all his breath / to play.”
From this humble beginning—I say “humble” as the language is plain, not showy; the poem is to be taken at face value; i.e., literally; the author doesn’t ply us with metaphor or other poetic devices—we discover a very good poem that also happens to be a fine template for how to write a poetic tribute to a deceased family member. I don’t mean to suggest that metaphor and lyrical language can’t be used in writing intimate portraits of loved ones. I’m just saying they’re not required. Note also, this poem has a distinct musicality, a pleasing tempo that resists classification, alternating between three and four beats per line and sometimes five, not quite a hymn but close.
But the characteristic that truly elevates this poem is specificity. What Kedney is really saying about her brother is that he wasn’t just a drug and alcohol addict. He was so much more. And then she judiciously provides details regarding that “much more.” What a wonderful way of honoring the dead.
“My Brother Pruning the Sweet Gum Tree” is one of many poems continuing this theme. In the following scene, Peter is emaciated, presumably due to the effects of poor dietary habits and substance abuse, but still working in his tree-trimming business:
His jeans hung loose on his hips,
bare chest glistened as he sucked in death,
Marlboro Man-style, the cigarette cradled
in his lips, his ribs ready to burst
through skin as he grabbed a branch.
Later in the poem, Peter “… mumbles after decades of alcohol, / says it will be my job to prune the tree / when he’s gone.” The speaker admits that she never pruned the tree after his death; nevertheless, “the tree / comes back to life, more full, every spring.” Kedney stops short of declaring the tree complicit in her efforts to honor her late brother but leaves it to us readers to consider the possibility. Again, Kedney’s judicious selection of details—what to tell and what not to tell—accounts for much of the dynamic force in her poems.
Kedney’s collection includes tributes to her deceased parents and other relatives as well. Her father, retired from the Navy, first appears in the poem “Apple Pie,” sifting flour “falling into drifts / in the belly of a yellow bowl.” She describes him as a man with ruddy cheeks, “his Brylcreemed dark hair, / slick and combed high.” We never learn if cooking was his vocation in the Navy or merely a hobby at home, but Kedney provides all we need to know to be convinced that her father’s apple pie was world class.
Later in the book, in “Postcards,” we see the father again, in the distant past when the author was a small girl and the father, home from the sea, “would walk in with drunk sailors / after three days in port, / a porcelain doll / from Greece / a baseball mitt, a valentine / for my mother.” The poem ends with “When all the sailors were gone, he’d sit at our table / with a glass of milk, an unlit Viceroy. I’d beg my mother, / take the candy heart.”
Here I am calling this poem (and others) a “tribute,” but I’m reconsidering that tag. Can a tribute contain the bad and ugly along with the good? So far, we know the father was an excellent pie baker, served in the Navy, and bought gifts for the whole family when he visited foreign ports. But we get a hint that maybe he spent his first three days in port on a drinking binge with his buddies before bringing them home for dinner. And we get the impression from the poem’s ending that the mother was not happy with her husband’s conduct. (She has to be begged to accept the candy heart.) Thus, a salient question for poets writing about family members is whether to be brazenly honest or to air only the family’s “clean” laundry. I suppose it depends on how much family disfavor the poet is willing to risk, but we can perhaps agree that a little scandal here and there makes for more interesting poems.
Though Kedney writes brilliantly about deceased loved ones, her poems in this collection range, with equal rigor, to many other subjects relating to her personal life experiences, from “Turning on a Dime” (an extended metaphor for sudden, unexpected changes) to “A Park Bench in Prague” (a place to remember the dead) to “Old Man in a Drugstore Parking Lot” (a memorable encounter with an old man who made her think of her father). One of my favorite poems in the book is “What We Do,” a poem that weaves together two lists—what she does for her husband and what he does for her—the sort of poem that would earn mega-points with a poet’s spouse:
He rubs between my shoulder blades
where grief is held in my body.
I pet his head, massage his scalp
when he can’t fall asleep …
He doesn’t understand how I listen to rocks
but lets me bring them into the house.
Eleanor Kedney has a gift for writing poems that demonstrate the sort of judicious selection of detail that renders her family and personal stories unique and memorable. Not quite down-to-earth, not quite heavenly, these poems seem, as the book title implies, to occupy a special place “between the sky and earth.”