Pamela Anderson reviews Laura Grace Weldon’s Blackbird

Blackbird by Laura Grace Weldon

Grayson Books http://www.graysonbooks.com, 2019

63 pages, $15.95

Review by Pamela R. Anderson

It is 5 a.m., and my house is silent in ways I appreciate:  my husband’s familiar sleep breathing, the distant whistle of a passing freight train, the occasional woosh of warm air passing through registers. With coffee mug in hand, nothing stands in the way of a sinking into a good book. This morning…Blackbird by Laura Grace Weldon renders me spellbound.

How can I not be captivated by poems that help me see commonplace things more clearly but also differently? She writes “What the Onion Teaches,” and I can envision the poet at her kitchen counter, taking apart an onion with a cook’s competent surety while her brain tumbles from prisoners to Shakespeare to a single child to trees to one woman:

Anything, seen wholly,

teaches everything.

Take a raw onion, harsh to its core.

Unpeel, un-ring, and hold to the light.

It is complete as the soil, sun, and rain

of its making.

Sauté the rings in oil

till the onion relaxes into itself,

elevating everything added next.

This looking, this warmth and trust,

is how the prisoner finds Shakespeare,

the lonely child discovers trees,

the battered woman pulls away layers

ready to be seen.

The transitions of thought in this poem—and others in the collection—are natural; they also strike me as skillfully miraculous as they leap from point to point. How did we get from this place to that? The answer lies in the ways that Weldon anchors each poem in a simple idea and then spins off lines that may be—in equal measure—jarring or reassuring. 

She writes with such honesty that I feel as though I am standing with her, wholly inside the experience. For example, in “Beyond Pasture Gates,” she offers grace to a cow—Isabelle—who is destined to be put down. With Weldon leading the way, we understand why this animal matters—this cow who “stood on 17-year-old hooves,/nibbling purple clover” and was then led through “the same land she’d drawn from/to make milk we turned into cheese, yogurt, butter/the same land she’d drawn from to make calves,/knitting bone, breath, blinking lashes/out of all this green.” Weldon invites a glimpse into the relationship of animal to land to people, and then she guides us to observe Isabelle in her last moments of life “With no more notice than she’d give a fly,/she took the vet’s syringe, slowly settling/on the grass where she slept, then died.” 

The poem could end there, but Weldon has a deeper truth to reveal:  the end of a way of life: 

In summer’s shimmering heat the men of my family

release wire’s long-held tension, coil fencing,

wrest thick round posts from the ground one by one.

No cattle stand in these fields, the barn is empty,

leaving only what green remembers

now that the cows have come home.

And there it is—the beautifully observed buckled into the troubling—the push-pull that defines this collection of poems. 

I continue reading, and I find that I want to bundle into my coat right now so that I, too, can share in Weldon’s “November Morning at Dawn” (Jacket over nightgown over boots/I walk out back exhaling clouds,/bucket of kitchen scraps swinging in hand.//Better than a ticket to Severance Hall/this shattery crunch of footfalls on frost,/…). Instead, I carry on, thumbing backwards through the pages as I seek deeper understanding of the “seeing” that is so much a part of the language of Laura Grace Weldon. I return to “How to Soothe”…

When babies cried

my father picked them up,

politely, as if to apologize

for their locomotion issues,

then stepped outside.

He named trees, birds, rain,

“This is grass,” he’d say,

“In no time at all

you’ll be running on it.”

Babies calmed at once,

eyes wide, awake  

to the planet’s glories.

I learned from my father

it’s a matter of walking

inside to out

with someone capable

of truly seeing.

Weldon polishes off this collection with “Anything, Everything” in an acknowledgement of two of today’s most urgent challenges; however, she also injects optimism and humor into this poem:

“Find everything you’re looking for?” a clerk asks

and I say “I’m still looking for world peace.”

“Can I get you anything else? “ a nurse asks

and I say, “Yes, a safe haven for refugees.”

For a millisecond, their faces soften

as they take a deep breath of imagining

then laugh or shake their heads

or commiserate. For a few minutes

we might even discuss

our planet’s higher possibilities.

Maybe that deep breath,

that imagining,

is a starting place. 

My morning has gone from darkness into the soft gray light of a Northeast Ohio winter morning. After this first reading of Laura Grace Weldon’s remarkable Blackbird, I wonder how she is beginning her day. From her website, I know that she teaches nonviolence—writes collaborative poetry with nursing home residents—leads workshops on memoir, poetry, and creative thinking—has published other works. I know that she lives with her family on a small farm (www.bitofearthfarm.com). I know that a portion of her book royalties will benefit the Medina Raptor Center in Spencer, Ohio, where injured and orphaned birds are rescued, rehabilitated, and released. But I shelve these details because—in this moment—what I mostly feel is a deep kinship with a poet I have never met but whose poems have and will continue to touch me deeply. 

BIO:

Pamela R. Anderson—an NEOMFA graduate—is the author of Just the Girls: A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies; A Drift of Honeybees (2020, The Poetry Box); her chapbook Widow Maker is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. When she is not writing, she likely is practicing yoga, hiking, or listening to blues music. pamelaranderson.org.