No Such Thing as Distance by Karen Paul Holmes
Terrapin Books, 2018. 85 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna Lang
No Such Thing as Distance is the right title for a collection grounded in the places, near and far, which Karen Paul Holmes and her family have called home—each place evoking memories, traditions and other points of origin. Her childhood in Flint, Michigan was enriched by the stories, food, music, and dance of her father’s Macedonia, as well as by her mother’s history of leaving New South Wales. When she herself is transplanted to Georgia, Holmes plants a lilac in her father’s name, and places its flowering branches in her mother’s vase. There is no distance or discontinuity between one place and another, one memory and another.
The layered endings are a special virtue of these poems. Holmes may begin in direct narrative, as she does in “Death Prefers Blonds: “There was a wig mix-up/at the funeral home.” But as she continues the story of refusing the gray bob her mother had worn to church and doctors’ offices at the end of her life, choosing instead “a stylish ash blond” that her mother might have preferred, she moves without seeming to move into another level of meaning:
One catty mourner hissed,
It doesn’t look a thing like her—
a boon to us: easier to let
that blond descend
into Madame Tussaud’s museum
while our real mother
joined us in prayers
carried on wisps of frankincense
past the gold dome of St. Nicholas.
Now the inert body in the casket, with its glamorous makeover, is no longer the real mother, the one who will remain with her family as prayer and memory. There are no pyrotechnics or portentous diction to signal this shift, just the effective use of a metaphor appropriate to this final rite of passage. In another poem about letting go of her mother, Holmes goes through the journals and calendars her mother had kept during her years of living and dying as a widow, then glances away from a photo taken during the period of hospice care:
The photo we can’t look at now
amplifies what we couldn’t see then:
her mummy-like body, bone showing through
hands like the underside of a leaf.
The surprising juxtaposition of mummy and leaf in these final lines allows the poet to capture the movement of grief through denial to acceptance.
After reading these poems of loss, the earlier poems of celebration like “Making Zelnik at the Sibling Reunion” (the recipe is included at the end of the book!) take on more significance, so that the short sections that move the collection forward also invite rereading. In this poem, the siblings work together to make their family’s traditional dish, and share it five ways before dispersing to five cities,
on takeoff as Mother instructed
when she kissed us goodbye.
The domestic ritual of cooking together draws the poet and her siblings together to remember their mother’s final goodbye, and to carry on the traditions that form the foundation on which they’ve built their lives. The strength Holmes derives from this foundation allows her to survive, and to write about, all her losses—stillbirths, divorce, and wildfire as well as her mother’s death. In these poems, Holmes invites us to live “this day once/and then [live] it again.”
Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such publications as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, American Life in Poetry and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language. Among her current projects is Self-Portraits, a chapbook collection of ekphrastic poems focused on women artists. She lives with her husband in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.