A Hundred Gourds 4:4 September 2015

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rising mist, fieldstones – Joy McCall

reviewed by Susan Constable

book cover

rising mist, fieldstones – Joy McCall
Keibooks, P.O. Box 516,
Perryville, MD 21903, USA
160 pp, 6”x9”, perfect bound
$13.00 USD (print) or $5.00 USD (Kindle)
ISBN 13: 978-1502920263

Joy McCall’s third tanka collection in two years, rising mist, fieldstones, leaves no doubt she is a prolific and talented writer. Once again, because of her keen observations of the world around her, we feel transported to her side in order to share her journey of discovery. Comprised of 70 sequences (ranging from four to twelve stanzas in each) and almost four times as many individual tanka, there’s something here for everyone.

As in her two previous books, circling smoke, scattered bones and Hedgerows, McCall’s themes include the natural world – with a concentration on small things that bring her pleasure. As Jonathan Day says in his glowing introduction, “Her backyard is full of life, an amazing concentration of it, for such a small space – not just green growing things, but squirrel and fox kit and raven and owl and bluetit and mouse – and she watches and listens, and loves and nurtures.”

The following poems, taken from the section for individual tanka, reveal her observance of, respect for, and interactions with the flora and fauna she sees, hears, and touches:

not knowing
the old way to call bees
from the flowers
I drop honey on my skin
and close my eyes, waiting

the velvet
of the mole’s body
entrances me
they crouch motionless
when I touch them

the garden
lays itself down
at my feet
my love shapeshifts:
man, beetle, leaf veins

Another common theme in McCall’s life and poetry involves all the characters she encounters, including children, drunks, witches, madmen, relatives, ex-cons, gypsies, and ghosts. She seems to accept them all without judgement, but with a great deal of understanding, compassion, and love. A good example of this is in her sequence ‘missing’ – a strong, poignant tanka, opening with this verse:

the warden calls
he is missing
two nights
he is not in his bed
at evening rounds

and is followed by the poet finding the man, asleep, under the bridge in a park. She wakes him and he takes her hand before the concluding verse:

it’s always the same
burger and fries
and coffee
and the silent drive home,
a bath and his own bed

Readers who are familiar with McCall’s work, will be prepared for straight talk about her own physical challenges. As an example of openness and honesty, here are the first and last stanzas in her sequence, ‘conversation’.

you think
paraplegia is just
not walking?
let me tell you
it’s much worse than that

stop me
this could go on and on
it’s boring
let’s talk about trees
and skies and books, and you

McCall’s sequences tend to follow a narrative structure, rather than various perspectives on a single theme. Many stanzas don’t stand on their own very well, but become meaningful in the context of what comes before and after. In the aforementioned sequence, the first stanza serves as an introduction to the topic and the final verse shows us where the poet’s priorities lie. In between are examples to illustrate the opening verse. As a result, the poignancy of any individual stanza is greatly reduced if read in isolation. If readers accept this style of sequence, they’ll be rewarded by clear images, simple wording, acute observations, and a workable philosophy of life. They’ll also get a good look at pain and sorrow, compassion and acceptance, humour and delight.

To quote Johnathan Day again, “… as Lao-tze taught long ago, and as Joy knows with her whole being, it is the bitter than makes us know the sweet, the darkness that makes us know the light, and life asks us to embrace both, as the fundamental condition of living it fully.”

Because of McCall’s insight and forthrightness, we’re better able to understand the intensity of her pleasure as well as the depth of her pain. We can appreciate the questions she asks as she moves closer to the hereafter – questions we may have asked ourselves, questions that may not have an answer.

do we imagine
the unknown?
is it all over
or does the terror go on?

today I muse
and get no housework done
who cares?
everything will be dust
in the end

Pain and pleasure. Fear and confidence. Sorrow and joy. We experience each of them, but not all of us can remain positive, see the good amid the bad, and still smile in spite of it all. For McCall,

we are
who we once were
no more
and yet deep inside
the child plays, the girl laughs


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