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Book Reviews for Poetry Month 


‘Stonechat,’ by Mary Elder Jacobsen

Rootstock Publishing, 2024

After the last poem in “Stonechat,” Mary Elder Jacobsen’s debut poetry collection, she closes by giving a whole page to a single line written by her mother, Maryan Elder: “We pray and we cry and we sing and we laugh and the hours are spun with gold.”

Her mother’s words correspond to the warm, personal tone and the range of emotions in this excellent collection. Jacobsen, who lives in North Calais and finds inspiration in the natural world around her, writes about nature, love, family, friends, parenting, and losing parents, with compassion and with insight about the human experience.

“Sponge Bath” begins with memories of being the mother of a newborn, and ends with parallel memories of losing her father.

“…I grow humbled
by the whole of us, this space
I find myself within, caring for
another being, my newborn
at home, only a few days old,
a kind of gift that overwhelms, 
to know we’ve only just begun
to say hello.”

The second half of the poem, where her role is daughter instead of mother, mimics the first, drawing to a tender, emotional close:

“…I’ve grown humbled
by the whole of us, the space
I’m standing in, caring for
this other being, my father only 
days from passing, here at home,
a strange kind of gift. It overwhelms,
to know we’ve only just begun
to say goodbye.”

Using a variety of poetic forms, Jacobsen is witty and playful. The rapidly swelling lines in “Fibonacci Blues” emphasize the point of the poem, as well as bring a smile, if you understand the title. The eponymous shape of “Hourglass” plays with the poem’s meaning.

Imagery from the natural world and themes of weaving and interconnectedness run through the poems, exploring how we relate to nature and to each other. “Weaverbird” begins in a clearing and becomes a love poem, as the opening stanza gently hints:

“A breeze floats through this clearing. Below,
the brook babbles, washing the land
with its own blessing. Where does one begin,
the other end? The sound of wind
and water are one, as if woven.”

A phrase from another poem, “making the ordinary life extraordinary,” captures what Jacobsen does: grasp the essence of a moment, highlight joy as well as grief, and find beauty, hope, and exceptionalism all around. Her poems are filled with discovery, surprise turns, and fresh perspectives on enduring themes. “Stonechat” is a precious volume by a perceptive poet whose work is “spun with gold.”

—Tom McKone

‘Fire on a Circle,’ by Kim Ward

Rootstock Publishing, 2024

Kim Ward’s debut poetry collection, “Fire on a Circle” has elements of ancient and modern. The Montpelier writer has already made her mark as a playwright. These poems show she’s equally talented as a poet. There’s music in her verse as she merges modern free verse with ancient runes. At the same time, she dispels myths about Vermont. The book has three sections: “Pursuit,” “Green Mountain Runes,” and “Fire.” She opens with a poem that’s both vivid description and stage direction: 

Movement in D Minor

It’s only a dark stage, a bright circle clinging
To her yellow skirt, gray words upon her palms.

It’s only a twisting body. Knives of light
Slice out and away from her small frame.

It’s only one short step out of that safety
Where she sways to the chanting of the unseen crowd.

She leaps off the wooden cliff into the darkness,
Yellow skirt lifted above her head like a leaf storm. 

“The Way We See the World” is a tender poem of love. Ward is succinct, never using more than she needs to capture feeling. “The way you move entices me out, / Leaves me dreaming / We are lovers.” There’s mystery here. Is the poet dreaming or are they lovers? she continues: “You are the beating wing of tenderness, / Country of origin unknown, / Beauty unmistakable.” 

Runes are ancient alphabets, used before Germanic languages adopted the Roman alphabet. As Ward says, the runes “… were used as symbols both magical and alphabetical …”

Uruz is the rune for strength: “Uruz, urchin in the rock with eyes that know.” In the poem “Green Mountain Runes” she addresses her ancestors: “Great Grandmother, beginning / With your bare Irish feet, / Standing on Abenaki backs, / You walked from rune to rune.” She brings the magic and mystery of runes to each poem. 

In the last section of her book, “Fire,” Ward is brutally realistic in “Vermont Calendar:” “But no one wants to know about my Vermont …With a January full of rusted trailers instead of collapsing bucolic barns …” The book ends with hope in “I Can Be”: “I can be barefoot in a spring dress with daffodils in its folds.” 

—George Longenecker