Amytis Leaves Her Garden by Karen Kelsay
(White Violet Press, 2012)
I confess to feeling intimidated as I approached this book. I am a long-time fan of the author’s online journal Victorian Violet Press, which is now closed, and I regularly submitted my poetry there. Our roles are established: I am a poet with no poetry credentials (other than my brief list of publications) and she is an editor. I submit. She reads and evaluates. I find the idea of reversing those roles unsettling.
Also, this book reveals embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Who is/was Amytis? Easily answered by an internet search. But, more importantly, formal poetry? The majority of these poems are formal poetry, which I haven’t studied since high school. My preference, in both reading and writing, is free verse. So who am I to tackle this mysterious collection of formal poems? With my limited experience and non-existent credentials, what can I add to the conversation about Amytis Leaves Her Garden?
Then I started reading. I jotted down a few notes. And a few more notes. I read the whole thing again, flipping back and forth between poems, pen in hand. Now I have eleven pages of notes. With eleven pages of notes, perhaps I have something to add to the conversation after all. But it’s not a review. What I have is an argument for reading outside of comfort zones.
Formal or not, the poems in Amytis Leaves Her Garden are relentlessly beautiful. The first line sets the tone: “It’s always in the violet hour you call…”. (“Winter Lullaby” pg 11) Winter and dusk linger near every poem. Amytis is not leaving her garden, the garden is leaving her.
The book travels back and forth between fields and seashores, between childhood memories and adult responsibilities, between myth and reality.
…If I could wrap myself
around your limbs and carry you like nectar
cupped inside my hands–I’d drink your pain. (“Aurora Speaks to Tithonus” pg 32)
I wondered if their love had ever been
alive, or if their crazy, violent bouts
had killed it off–until the illness came. (“Outlooks” pg 40)
Time is fraught with grief, but also a maturing acceptance of change.
I’ve come to wrap long vines around my breasts
and smear wet clay upon my dress. To weep. (“At Sunset By the Oak” pg 26)
Your gauze-like scent clings to the walls, despair
and giddy memories return. I swear,
I hear a gull and jetty bell’s refrain.
They both dissolve like sand hills in the rain. (“Divining a Lost Summer” pg 45)
These poems are mesmerizing. Rhyme and meter are a tidy bonus, but not the primary allure. Whenever I try to name their forms, I succumb to the lure of imagery. When I try to pin down meter, I lose myself in metaphors.
Does my lack of appreciation for formal poetry rob me of a more profound connection? Probably so. A reader familiar with formal poetry would likely choose a different set of lines to illustrate a different understanding. But Amytis Leaves Her Garden did not hold me at arm’s length, demanding I study the intricacies of sonnets before entering its world.
My journey with Amytis Leaves Her Garden reflects my larger journey with poetry. I approached it with misgivings, circled a while in indecision, sampled and retreated, returned for a closer look, and finally waded in. Next time I’m tempted by a book that seems too difficult for me, I won’t be so hesitant to explore.
Amazon link and sample poems: