Book Review: Landscape with Female Figure

by Nola Garrett

It has been a little more than two months since an underground fire forced Consol Energy to shut down its Blacksville No. 2 deep mine along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, and neither the company nor the federal agency in charge of mine safety oversight knows what caused it.

And they may never know.

Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, A-1, May 17, 2013

Andrea Hollander, Landscape with Female Figure: new and selected poems, 1982–2012, Autumn House, 2013, 187 pp.

It’s been seven years since Woman in the Painting, Andrea Hollander Budy’s last book of poems appeared, a generous collection, numbering 90 pages; but since then much has happened in Andrea’s life. Her only child has grown. Her father has died. Her marriage of 35 years has ended in divorce. She has moved from Arkansas to Portland, Oregon.

Such is the stuff of poetry and loss.

There no shortage of stuff written by and about poets’ divorce(s). Consider the short list: John Milton, W. D. Snodgrass’ best seller, Heart’s Needle, Silvia Plath & Ted Hughes—Ariel vs. The Birthday Letters. Last night, I reread Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, her prize-winning collection of poems which are about her divorce after 30 years of marriage. Olds, perhaps wisely for the sake of her children, chose to withhold publication of her collection until ten years had passed, though I just don’t buy Olds’ ongoing crush on her ex, distrust her use of so much arcane language. Though Olds talks about pain, she intellectualizes it. Andrea Hollander’s divorce poems are grittier, more cautious, and contain more of an arc.

I first met Andrea at the 1995 White River Writers Workshop, held at Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas where she served as Writer-in Residence. And, served is absolutely the right word to describe how she organized the very best workshop I have ever attended. At that time she and her husband, Todd, owned a nearby bed and breakfast, so she decided to treat the workshop participants, she told me, the same way they treated their guests. Everyday against the June, river valley heat, Andrea sensibly wore simple cotton shirtwaist dresses. Not only were the meals well chosen and prepared, but also the faculty, the accommodations, the arrival instructions, the writing assignments, the readings, the computer lab, the daily schedule, the receptions, the quiet time for writing, and even a dance party on the last night. Faculty and writers truly mingled rather than observing the usual caste customs. Most of the poems I wrote there were later published. I met at Andrea’s workshop a half dozen people I still consider to be my friends. And, one evening on my way to dinner, I was nearly overcome with joy by the trills of an acute, gray bird perched on the peak of the dining hall’s entrance roof. It was Andrea’s husband, Todd, who identified for me—a northwestern Pennsylvania native—that song: the very first mocking bird I had ever heard.

The first section of Landscape with Female Figure contains Hollander’s new poems which deal with loss, grief and divorce. The opening poems show the speaker slowly letting herself acknowledge the facts of her failing marriage. The first poem, “Finches or Sparrows,” depicts the fog of war one encounters during the early stages of divorce grief—the memory of her mother’s death—her struggle to attend accurately even the most ordinary events.

Then the wheezing stopped,
the wild, invisible gods released them,
and I saw I had been mistaken: All at once
they dropped, fluttering to the ground,
nothing but leaves, yellow and brown.

As the other poems follow, each one’s syntax less complex, images exploring guilt and doubt, art and reality, until finally “Portrait with Purple Shroud” that ends

When I go back
I’ll sleep on the sun porch.

I was afraid
until I understood I was afraid.

Near the end of the New Poems series, Hollander abandons syntax, departs from her life-long control of tone and focus, writes of what I think is the most painful and difficult moment of divorce that many divorced persons fail to experience, finds the courage to descend back down into the black hole of her word mine, and writes “Question.” A page and three quarters, long lines with no stanza breaks, no punctuation, except for a final question mark. Her poem that tells us what it’s like to know you may never know why your years’ long marriage ended with a divorce is the longest poem that I know of that she has published.

Seems to me, all lovers create within their relationship a private language. Married lovers, too. Their language holds them together, enables them to build a family. Genesis 11 describes Yahweh coming down to watch the Tower of Babel being built, then confusing the workers’ language so the builders could no longer understand each others’ speech, resulting in the abandonment of their work and ultimately their homes, their city, and their lands. While I am not suggesting Yahweh causes divorces, I am suggesting if married couples no longer are able to talk their language with each other, divorce happens. No more to build on there. Why else is the first task of any marriage therapy to reestablish communication? Further, during divorce that loss of language especially for a poet is doubly painful. Paralyzing. A personal and artistic embarrassment. So, when a divorced poet chooses to question the reasons for that loss (many divorced poets never publicly try) what may emerge is the poetry of a changed poet rather than the answer why.

I’m thinking that after Andrea’s divorce organizing a this selected poems might have been a welcome task, not to say that task isn’t an honor for any poet. When compiling a selected, lots of poets disown many of their early poems. However, Andrea Hollander has been even-handed in choosing approximately the same number of poems from each of her three previous collections published under her married name. And, rightly so, because these selected poems portray a poet writing in the same controlled voice, same tone, same point of view, many poems of ekphrasis set in domestic scenes, many poems tenderly revealing the irony within relationships at crucial moments.

There is a striking symmetry within the New poems and the Selected, each set in Hollander’s writing studios. “Dawn” ends the selected series from her first book, House without a Dreamer, containing the wispy

I want to know why
the words I am saying seem to be spoken
by somebody else.

“Writing Studio” is the penultimate poem of the New Poems, ending with this measured, though confident self description:

You are the watcher
at the edge, a gleaner.
After the harvest is over,
you may take what you can,
but only after the crows
are done.

Yes, grittier—back from Andrea Hollander’s descent, now back mining in Portland, Oregon, even though she may never know why. I have a dear friend, Ginger Carlson, 90 years old and still stylishly counting, who recently sent me an email concerning her long past divorce: “Divorce saved my life—is that a bad thing?” I suspect that Ginger and Andrea, if they met, might well make good companions.


Filed under: Book Review, Nola Garrett, Prose