Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Robert Francis, one of my favorite New England poets and a contemporary of Robert Frost, wrote that poetry was what “excited him most deeply,” but at the age of 70 he declared that he disliked it! In the introduction to Traveling in Amherst, Richard Gillman explains that Francis declared this antipathy for poetry because he found much of the poetry written by his contemporaries (excepting Frost) “to be boring or baffling or both.” At some point in Francis’s life, he concentrated on creating his own poetry rather than being unhappy reading the work of others, and he wrote his best poems when he entered his sixth decade.
I admire Robert Francis’s poetry, but in antithesis to his denigration of contemporary poetry, I find that I’m exhilarated by post modern and progressive poetry, and my shelves have become crowded with volumes of contemporary poets.
Publisher Gary Entsminger of Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, has launched the work of several distinguished contemporary poets during the last few years, and the work of these poets have delighted and surprised me. I always try to budget for the newest poetry books emerging from this Indie press located in a cabin in the Rockies.
Pinyon’s latest poet, Francine Marie Tolf, has written a volume of sharply-edged poems that might surprise Robert Francis, if he were alive and reading, despite his avowed dislike for contemporary poetry. Prodigal, Tolf’s second collection of poems, is written by a poet who possesses that which some literary critics would call “new eyes”—and she uses them to make observations about animals, nature, even antiquity, sometimes poking fun at herself in the manner of Charles Simic, another contemporary poet, particularly in the prose poems that plumb her personal life; e.g., “She Only Wants to Write:”
“the thin keening of crickets this fragile May morning, and how the breath of her cat sleeping on a pillow behind her is a little cloud on the back of her neck. She knows if she links these two mysteries, she’ll spin a bridge joining everything to everything, with her in the center, swaying on rope that braids itself as she casts down words, sinking full weight into each syllable without looking down.”
This kind of objective/subjective poetry is difficult to achieve. It illustrates “control” accomplished by synthesizing personal and profound in a way that changes and moves not only the reader but the poet as well. As publisher Entsminger observes, [it is] “derived not from cheaply won sentiment, but from an intensely personal conviction…”
Tolf achieves a meditative effect with her compact poem entitled “Morning,” which includes a beginning quote from Joanna Macy: “I could not cure myself of praying to a God I no longer believed in.” The brief, incisive poem is a wry commentary on the Jungian notion of God needing us to bring Him into the world:
“But I do believe. He knows that.
I talk to him as I drink coffee in the morning.
I give him angels.
When I wake in darkness, severed
from myself and from him,
‘he knows my terror.
He allows me to pray
him back into being.”

For me, the poem that presented an evocative mixture of mindfulness and wisdom was the title poem of Tolf’s book, “Prodigal.” It is a blend of imagery about ordinary landscapes of nature and human terror and extraordinary beauty that illuminates our intimate connection with all life:
“…They remind me how prodigal beauty is
Think of sunflower offering themselves
at the edges of freeways, never caring
if they’re prized.
Beauty seems the opposite to me of evil,
which weighs advantages expertly
and wastes nothing—
neither a mother’s terror, not a child’s trust,
nor the gold filings of the dead.
Beauty throws away acres
of pear blossom and burnished maple
season after season, never learning
to be prudent, yet saving my heart
again and again—
my stapled together heart
that refuses to remain open…”

Prodigal contains wonderful meditative poetry that illustrates hard-won wisdom emerging from an understanding of what it is to be a human living in the tension of a beautiful and savage world.
Francine Marie Tolf’s poems and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, and she has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board; Barbara Deming Memorial/Money for Women; the Loft Literary Center; and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She has an MA from Kansas State University and an MFA from the University of Minnesota.
Prodigal is available from www.pinyon-publishing.com or Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Prodigal beauty ... wonderful
Elizabeth A. Johnson writes, in the spirit of this insight: “We have old lessons to learn from the sun, earth, and sky: how the sun gives so much away and does not ask the earth for repayment.”