Review by Mindy Kronenberg
A favorite course of mine back in graduate school (under the tutelage of poet Julie Sheehan) was a “First Books” examination of established contemporary poets, seeing their early literary discoveries and distinctive voices take shape and provide signs for the familiar refinement and profound declaration associated with their work. The pleasure in reviewing debut collections is getting that same exciting sense of discovery—witnessing a determined and inspiring poetic voice begin its journey. Julene Waffle’s So I Will Remember is a well-crafted and moving first collection of memories and meditations that engages the reader and sets a paradigm with its elegant and insightful poems.
There is a heightened sense of immediacy that Waffle achieves in her intimate encounters with loved ones, through various rites of passage and an emotional connection enhanced by startling imagery. In “Grandma’s Invitation” a shared evening brings the poet and her grandmother together in a sensuous moon-lit night where:
Moon shadows dripped from branches
like honey glaze on fresh-baked biscuits,
and breezes carried crushed ferns and tree musk
down the mountain.
As they sat together, “in thin night dresses and slippers, ready for sleep…” the poet observes her grandmother’s demeanor in contemplation and wonders at the things she might have asked (and might have learned), as the elder woman’s face shifted in inner thought, her mouth “forming thoughts on air/ but uttering no sound.” The intense poignancy of missed opportunity arises again in “The Air I Breathe,” a poem that honors legacy and releases the raw grief of hesitation to capture more time with her dying mother. After rhapsodizing on the persistent, inherited breath of forebears (“Their air is my air,/filtered by cloud/and rain, Earth/ and time.”) the poet closes in on the dilemma of the ephemeral plane:
But as my mother died,
the air burned dry around me
and singed my throat
as I lost the courage to ask for the room,
for five minutes of privacy with her.
And for that, I have only my ashen lungs.
Waffle’s exploration of her father also demonstrates her ability to unearth the hidden lives of parents—who they were before us, how they have grown into the complex loved ones who protect and puzzle us. The poet explores her father’s war experiences and speculates on who he might have been before the carnage of battle and haunted memory in “An Unfair Exchange” ( p. 11): “Who was he before the war opened him up,/ splayed him, raw, bloodied, broken/ and then sewed him back together/with casts and stitches,/ and the promises of an education and VA payment?” She admits “I never knew who he was before” and wonders “…if his laugh ever sounded of song birds on wind/ or if it was always choked, blackened, hardened.” This complexity arises beautifully in “Full of Sorry,” a summoned memory of a car ride in childhood and the juxtaposition of a girl’s grief for a damaged toy and the pain of a father trying to protect her in the only way he knew how. The unspoken regret between father and daughter is palpable and deeply felt.
So many poems in So I Will Remember slow down life’s moments under a weight of wonder, glow with the gift of love’s continuity. “Visiting Their Graves,” recalls a bond between the poet’s mother and grandfather built on shared fishing skills, and when Waffle writes of her son fishing it becomes a nearly spiritual event:
And although they were gone
before they could pass their knowledge to
my son, he knew the feel of a fishing rod in his hands.
His cast lines glimmer like silver fish in the air;
his pole, an extension of his arm since he could walk.
We call him Twitch because he has a natural way with the lure.
Watching him fish is better than any graveside flower
I could ever think to offer.
This is echoed in “A Little Longer” (p. 17), a poem that begs to steal time for youth, leisure, pleasure, and where we see “The boy’s cast line flashes sunset-fire/ as peepers murmur synchronous churrs…” The luminous “From Under an Umbrella of Stars” (p. 23) places a lens on a true moment of shared awe—a boy starstruck from star gazing and his mother, witness to his reverie—that even startles the natural world. Her son is “stepping from the lens/ stares down into his empty hands.” With “his own start-eyes shining” whispers “It is as if I could hold them in my hands–/in that pause,/even the crickets stop singing.”
The poems in So I Will Remember illuminate each page, carry a promise to continue archiving cherished experiences and events from life.
So I Will Remember By Julene Waffle
Woodland Arts Editions, 2020
Mindy Kronenberg is an award-winning poet and writer with numerous publication credits world-wide. She teaches writing, literature, and arts subjects at SUNY Empire State College, publishes Book/Mark Quarterly Review, is editor of Oberon poetry magazine, and the author of Dismantling the Playground (Birnham Wood), Images of America: Miller Place (Arcadia), and OPEN, an illustrated poetry book (Clare Songbirds Publishers).