In The Short List of Certainties, Lois Roma-Deeley compels the reader to open her eyes and witness the beauty of life. Life is after all the only sacred thing we have and to miss any of it is to miss love itself. It is not by chance that Roma-Deeley uses an epigraph that demands we read hope into life’s darkest corners. The epigraph reads: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” With this introduction, we are brought on a winding journey through years, centuries, and decades. The sister motif, whether as a literary foil, an invisible, or ephemeral twin, allows Roma-Deeley’s alter-ego to shape-shift through the universe to bear witness to many events.
Roma-Deeley informs the reader of the certainty of confronting oneself and how terrifying that can be. Looking at ourselves, we risk slipping “into the holy nothingness of now” (4). To exist in the present moment is to know doubt as a certainty that is juxtaposed against hope; hope is a necessary part of life precisely because, isn’t it doubt that allows us to recognize “an outbreak/of reason is not a whisper of unholy light” (42)?
Skimming the surface of many of the poems is Roma-Deeley’s wry view of life. When confronted with blind faith as in the poem, “Given Notice,” instead of being overwhelmed, the narrrator notes, dryly, “I have often wished for this kind of faith” (6)—presumably a faith without a healthy sense of doubt.
Such breathtaking lines like, “My heart / beats like the wings of a thousand cranes leaving shallow water” (9) are crisscrossed with stark lines where Roma-Deeley demands that the reader accept that, “You might be lost” (21).
“Because I Can Pronounce Islamabad” asks that we “describe the map / of a woman’s body and its bruises”(33), and we are brought to a series of poems that speak of the interconnectedness of all humans. Arguably, from an inclusive, feminine mindset this interconnectedness is lucidly and painfully laced together in lines where several events coincide (“Held Hostage by My Own Good Opinion of Myself” 34-36). The insufferable “blame-the-victim” attitude is spotlighted in the poem “Thirty-nine Ways to Screw Up” (37-38): “Listen to someone who is absolutely sure women who get raped must have ‘asked for it’ / Believe it can’t happen to me. Or someone I love” (38). The poem demands we realize cruelty that is done to one is done to all: “I want to be spared the picture / of Christina” (46). This request escalates with the final line in this poem with, “keep me from fully understanding / how they will feel / when, in this precise and unending moment, / each will come to believe / the human heart is plain but it is not simple” (47).
The statement, “I’m often afraid” (56), gives way to the inevitable realization of this world “where no one is safe and nothing is whole” (57). In this heartbreaking and stunning book, the certainties of life are forgiveness, love, beauty and doubt. “They don’t know how beautiful they are, / those young girls walking home from school” (71), so “let’s beg forgiveness / of what we can never know” (77).
Roma-Deeley challenges us to start anew, to wake each morning with fresh eyes and to “Let us at last—or at least—bless the empty desert / as if it were a blank page” (78).
The Short List of Certainties
by Lois Roma-Deeley
Franciscan University Press, 2017, $14.95 [paper] ISBN 978-0996930550
Barbara Ellen Sorensen is a poet and writer. She contributes to the Tribal College Journal and has two poetry publications: Song From the Deep Middle Brain (Main Street Rag, 2010) and Compositions of the Dead Playing Flutes (Able Muse Press, 2013).