Her Heartsongs by Joan Colby
Presa 2018, 76 pp
Reviewed by Robbi Nester
Joan Colby’s collection, Her Heartsongs (Presa, 2018) is the poet’s 21st book of poetry. She writes, among other things, of the folly of ambition and love, the short lives of beloved pets, and the heedless daring of her younger self. However, as the book’s opening poem, “Her Heart,” directs us, this book is not a misty and fond trip into the poet’s past, but a physiological examination of love as a kind of heart attack: “broken heart syndrome.”
These are incisive poems, seldom prone to nostalgia. When Colby inquires into her past, she registers the darkness she missed at the time, as in “Night Swimming,” where a young, confident narrator and her friend take a forbidden dip in a moonlit quarry. The narrator notes of these two young women “how we loved ourselves/Our daring, our invincibility,” but the adult narrator harbors knowledge the young swimmers do not have—that this dark pool hides “a sedan of murdered bodies” and that the life before these two will bring them into close contact with dangers they cannot imagine.
This theme is present in many of the poems in the collection, where the poet scans memories of adolescence and early love through the lens of experience. In “Securing a Memory,” the narrator recalls how her past self formed a “deliberate memory” of a romantic episode in an ill-fated relationship, recording her insight that “It’s not important/That we engaged like teeth on meat/Or sawed our bodies until like trees/We fell and fell and fell.” As the poet notes in “Floating Islands of Xochinilco,” it is only the young who “believe touching solves everything.”
The young Colby in “Food” sees the Sunday host as “an air-puffed masquerade,” but rejects her mother’s view that “people who liked eating” as well as all other “gross acts of bodies” were obscene,” yet seems to regard the body with distrust. For example, “Misogyny” offers an Adam who regards Eve’s breast as “a sidewinder/Marking a trail in the dust.”
Clearly, it is not religion that guides this view, but the experience of one who has suffered the onslaughts of aging and disease. The female mind and body in particular are poorly understood, “misdiagnosed/repeatedly,” as Colby tells us in “Her Heart.” We see the poet’s pragmatic approach to this problem when the women in “Twisted Gut,” the narrator and veterinarian, tend to a mare that has just given birth, curing its life-threatening ailment as men could not, “three exhausted females in a torn-up stall, /Straw scattered everywhere like confetti.”
The narrator and her female counterparts know that “inside the body is a black and white/country of indifference” (“Stress Test”), yet face the prospect of being “laid on icy tables/for knives, for the flagellating rays” with an endurance that is also courage (“Pain: For Christina”). These are strong women, who, even while the accept the inevitability of pain and death, recognize that “death in life is never/Knowing what is good” (“Food”), and that the sweetest berries are to be found in the wildest places, most beset with thorns.
Robbi Nester is the author of a chapbook, Balance (White Violet,2012), and two collections of poems, A Likely Story (Moon Tide, 2014), and Other-Wise (Kelsey, 2017). She also edited two anthologies, The Liberal Media Made Me Do It (NibevToes, 2014) and Over the Moon: Birds, Beasts, and Trees available at www.poemeleon.org