Review by Michelle Wilbert
A number of years ago, I read a book by noted Quaker author Parker Palmer entitled Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. In it, the following seminal quote: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
As I was reading this intelligently probing book of poetry, Asking the Form by poet and educator, Hilary Sallick, I was immediately struck by the observation that these two books are natural companions for each other in their attempt to question the “form” of our lives and to see how those forms embrace, or reject, our attempts to fill them with what we hope is our best work—our best selves. Through reading these exquisite poems—queries and statements and wonderings—“Asking the Form” becomes a soft-body exercise in living true.
The intention, laid out in the title poem (21) sets the stage for the poet, and for our understanding of the original exercise and where it leads us:
a sonnet every day this week, and ask the form
to let me begin. Then I seemed to see it here:
a patient emptiness; a strong open shape
lit up at dusk; a vessel made of fine clear
glass, disappearing on a shelf, ready to take
whatever pours into it. This difference though:
the words it would hold would create it as well,
would give shape to what shapes them. How
can this be?…
As the poems proceed, different poetic forms are utilized, permeated with a delightful sense of play—serious topics all—but throughout, the poems maintain an idea of daily life as the ultimate form: a villanelle on “The Piano” (36) which resonated so powerfully with me as a musician—and the whole person connection with touching the keys of an old, beloved instrument, “I listen to feel the sound” and hearing the response: “They answer, sinking down” with the form requiring the repetition of this experience—so familiar in the way we so often seek answers to life’s questions. We ask and ask again and we wait to hear the voice of our inner life responding.
The poet also reflects on the forms all around her and on the way they represent themselves. In this, one can almost envision someone walking around their home, “Asking the Form” of what is found there, as in the poem, “Kitchen Still Life” (43) in which various implements—a wooden spoon; a dish towel—are observed to have a simple satisfaction with their lot in life—they simply do what they do. They don’t seem to feel the need to interrogate their lives or usefulness—they accept the dictates of form as function.
The deeper mysteries at the heart of these poems and the poets realization of the worthiness of this endeavor is found in the sestina, “Nasturtium and Geranium Blossoms” (47) as the poet notices the patient, abiding presence of flowers in pots—sometimes neglected as life intervenes—but maintaining their vigil of imparting beauty—even the beauty of dying things—to a room and the life in it.
A few of the poems move into the realm of human lives and the forms they take. In these, the sense of curious observation gives way as the poet is immersed in yet another form, that of our emotional, visceral responses to the human condition. The section, “Walking Dreams” (51) contains 10 poems connected to themes of diminishment and loss. The opening poem seems to move into the place of sudden insight into the limitation of spoken, or written, language and in this, there seems another form to ponder:
…But nothing I was able to say
was what was necessary
It was then I began speaking
with fewer and fewer words.
All of these thoughtfully crafted poems do what poetry often does best: Helping us to find our own questions—our own forms—of interpretation; of context and of identification with and application for, our own lives.
Asking the Form by Hilary Sallick
Červená Barva Press, 2020, $18 [paper] ISBN 9781950063185
Michelle Wilbert is a writer, reader, poemcatcher, spiritual director and retired midwife. She has been publishing her own work in a variety of print and online media since 1996