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Book Review

With Nothing Behind but Sky: A Journey through Grief

 

by Perie Longo Artamo

 

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Review by Carol Katz:

Perie Longo, a California poet, has been leading poetry workshops for more than 20 years with the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and California-Poets-in-the-Schools. Her poems are published in various poetry journals and anthologies. Some of these include: The Journal of Poetry Therapy, The Paterson Literary ReviewL, and Prairie Schooner. She is a certified Poetry Therapist as well as a marriage and family therapist.

 

Longo's poems are more personal than those of Jacob and Flanigan. She tells the story of her personal tragedy—the illness and eventual death of her husband and how she persevered. Like Jacob and Flanigan, the theme of love runs throughout the book as, for instance, in Along the Way:

above it all where a liquid tongue lunges over the mountain, cracks over jagged granite meant to snap you awake. Even with sore muscles we managed to climb to another height and yes, take my word for it, with something we learned along the way, love. ( p.16)

 

Although there are no illustrations, the poet's descriptions are so vivid that we are able to rely on our imaginations. For example in Cat Scan:

In a dream I rescued the cat on the way out of a war torn town, where we really do not live. … …But today the doctor points out on your cat scan the bulge of white lymph nodes like miniature mushrooms. H-bombs exploding against a dark background that leaves us stunned. (p.15)

 

Look at the metaphors — the comparison of lymph nodes to miniature mushrooms. These types of metaphors are also seen in other poems. My artistic instinct can visualize my paintbrush illustrating this powerful scene. Also look at the play on words: cat the animal and cat scan the X-ray.

 

The narrative form of several poems adds a novelist's touch. For instance in The Widow Attempts a Singles’ Group Potluck:

Gender balanced. That was the big thing. I had to bring a man, but wasn’t the point there wasn’t one? … I looked up, imagining him floating like a blimp without wires. Would have to figure how to get him down. “Never mind,” my friend said… (p. 73)

 

Note that even the title reads like a book, yet it is a brilliant poem with its satirical tongue- in-cheek descriptions: “ women with casseroles to titillate the men_” and “Stupid questions like ‘ Why didn't the man who commissioned the Mona Lisa like the final product? ’ ” (P.73). The six other “widow” poems are more nostalgic than satirical (pp. 77, 79, 82, 83, 84, 88).

 

I like the way Longo plays with words. For example in Squoze:

Down Highway 15 past Vegas past midnight inside the steam of air you say you are “squoze” … I think squozen a good word, what happens to your life at the end when you’re trying to squeeze in as much as you can, pushing to the rim… squoze from comfort and our bed… … I lean back for a snooze… (p. 18-19)

 

She writes about her coping strategies in several poems, using dreams and her imagination. For example, in the poem After Visiting Chagall: San Francisco:

roosters posed in off-kilter windows I’m like that, detached. To stay grounded you have to unfasten yourself from the once true, look around and see what else: odd emus poke heads through thistledown fog… imagine Chagall’s wings on our backs, and suddenly we’re floating, the whole family… we pass each other and wink. You should hear that rooster crow. (p. 81)

 

We see that she does not sit at home and mope. On the contrary, she visits museums, goes to widows' events, but always thinks of her late husband. Another way that she comes through her grief is experienced in The Dar’s Daughter:

And when it became the darkest, I lit the kerosene lamp on the mantle with a sense of purpose and paraded through the house shouting “All is well, all is well.” (p. 22-23)

 

We admire her strength in showing us the spectrum of emotions from sadness, grief, hope, and even humour. We cannot help laughing and crying with her as we read her poems.

 

The following are two examples of Longo's funny lines from What My Husband Taught Me about Adventure and The Dar’s Daughter:

Risking your life is a good thing — it halts rumination. Women ruminate too much and want compliments… (p. 13) … I’m not sure I can use the word ‘fuck’ in a poem and still be allowed to be a member of the Poetry Society of America even though it sounds accurate. … (p. 22)

 

As Flanigan does, she shows her appreciation of nature in With Nothing behind but Sky:

We passed sky’s fortress of walls, knelt to the surprise of columbine, and listened to wind between thin green needles. … (p. 92)

 

Longo's poems remind me of You’ll Never Walk Alone, a beautiful song of hope, faith, optimism, and the beauty of nature from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel:

When you walk through a storm, Hold your head up high And don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm, There’s a golden sky And the sweet silver song of the lark. Walk on, through the wind. Walk on, through the rain Though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart And you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone.

 

The themes of nature, grief, love, passion, hope, humour, and empathy run through each of the three books of poetry. Each poet expresses these themes in a different way: Bob Jacob in his personal involvement with hospice patients; Patrick Flanigan in comparing grief to the flora and fauna in nature; and Perie Longo through her personal tragedy.

 

As with Jacob's and Flanigan's books, Longo's book belongs on the shelves of libraries, universities, schools, hospitals and hospice centers.

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