Volume 42.2
Summer 2011


book review:

How to Paint the Finch's Song
by Carolyn Hall

Reviewed by J. Zimmerman

How to Paint the Finch's Song, by Carolyn Hall (Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2010). 80 unnumbered pages; 4x6. Semigloss four-color card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-1-893959-94-1. Price: $12.00 from the publisher at <www.redmoon.com>.

Carolyn Hall, editor and widely published, prize-winning author of haiku and senryu, has assembled a fine new book How to Paint the Finch’s Song, her second collection. Its cover reproduces the Paul Klee painting Twittering Machines (1933), which pairs well with Hall's title and contents. Klee's concise and witty art and his delicate colors resonate with Hall's sixty poems. Hall and Klee both show that a great deal can be achieved with a few slender lines. Hall completes the symbiosis amusingly by placing her name in the pink box that Klee paints near the bottom of his canvas.

Hall's collection Water Lines (2006, reviewed in MH 38.2) was a powerful first book. This second book affirms her as a skillful creator of remarkable images and juxtapositions. This spring it won one of The Haiku Foundation’s first Touchstone Distinguished Book Awards.

Her opening one-line poem:

to whom it may concern cottonwood puffs

is startling and apt, offering an informal dedication, the poet's jaunty request for the reader's attention. Many of the poems sparkle with humor. Yet it is Hall's poems of poignant absence and loss that resonate most deeply, as in these vignettes:

dark comes early now —
we speak of the children
we didn’t have

still no marker
on my father’s grave
blue-eyed grass

Regret is shown in the first poem by the loss of light. The yearning emotional stance is independent of any details that the reader might choose concerning whom the "we" are. In this way, Hall gives the reader a place to stand emotionally and an opportunity to enter the poem with one’s own story. The second poem travels emotionally from the missing object to the greater absence of the father. Then comes Hall's redeeming image: a slender "blue-eyed" meadow flower. This turns the emotional tone, lifting the inner eye to an implied meadow, a distant horizon, a blue-eyed sky. The flower relaxes the situation and the reader: there is time enough.

Hall also has the gift of originality in acknowledging difficult situations, such as:

how to reply?
just the tips
of iris swords

Her poem pulls a reader into its story. One imagines being in the scene of this poem, paying attention to how one speaks. Perhaps the almost-spoken words could cut and need to be moderated. Perhaps the words are too weak and need to add the force of a sword tip. Either way, the core feeling remains: being careful about speaking. Another fraught situation is in an emergency where one can salvage very little:

brush fire ...
we would rescue
different things

The reader is swept into the poem by the urgent external image of a wildfire. Then the poem opens up, accepting differences in what is es- sential, inviting the reader's thoughts. Hall's leaps between the external world and the inner emotions are almost always daring yet surefooted. I fell only once:

a bounce
in the footbridge —
deciding on blue

Maybe the bounce triggers a pleasant frisson of excitement. Maybe it causes a jolting scare. Either way, this sounds like a moment to pay attention to what is underfoot. That context plus the use of "deciding" suggests that "blue" is not a random thought bubbling up but a considered response. That poem remains an intriguing puzzle.

Hall's humor glitters throughout the book. Here, once-interesting ideas may turn out to be better dropped and abandoned:

windfall apples
what I think about
what I think

New Year's Day
the center of the chocolate
not what I expected

The latter is a chocolate-lover's nightmare of understated horror. Perfectly, this occurs on the day one revises and augments one's assorted mixture of plans, no matter how previous plans turned out.

In his glowing introduction, John Stevenson observes that the book's four sections (titled "a word that will do," "the space between waves," "something huge," and "the dream continues") are "a primer on how to write a poem." Thus one can read it for pleasure and one can read it to learn. We suggest that this book will charm you. You could even buy it by moonlight the way that Hall makes purchases:

full moon I swipe my debit card



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