Book Review

Linda Parsons on
poetry by Catherine Pritchard Childress
EastOver Press, 2023


It’s surely no accident that the cover of Catherine Pritchard Childress’s debut full-length poetry collection, Outside the Frame, pictures a ruby-ripe pomegranate and its roe-like seeds spooned from the mother fruit. Historically, pomegranates are heavy with symbolism and myth: fertility/marriage and childbirth, death/resurrection, mother/daughter attachment and divide, to name a few. These are the seeds that Persephone ate after Hades abducted her to the Underworld, an act that kept her apart from her grieving mother, Demeter, causing winter’s fallow bleakness over the Earth, then being released into spring’s green flourish, only to return below every fall. An explanation of our seasons, with Greek mythology’s typical abduction scene, but also depicting the seasons of a woman’s life—from a girl’s innocence and curiosity to a woman’s fullness of experience and all the chapters of joy, discovery, and hard knowledge in between. 

What we glimpse both inside and outside the frame in Childress’s work is a powerful blossoming of women, flesh and mythical, into fervent voice and defiant independence. Mirroring the constrained Persephone’s time apart from light and maternal comfort, Childress’s speakers are wife/mother/homemaker, adolescent, adult, and the biblical women many of us know well from Sunday school days—all straining at the reins of male control and societal convention. 

The opening poem, “Putting Up Corn,” perhaps Childress’s signature piece, sets the stage with the Corn Mother’s partner presenting her with a bushel bag of sweet corn for “shucking, silking, washing, cutting, cooking …” She knows wryly that the man, at least for eight hours of labor “in a kitchen where I don’t belong,” has “delivered [her] submission.” Each ear gleaned in her hand becomes a “rosary said to the blessed mother / whose purity he thinks I lack.” The poem’s turn is an italicized prayer combining Protestant, Catholic, and pagan traditions, with a wink to the poet’s surprising humor in trying times: “Hail Holy Queen, I called for takeout again.” Indeed, this poem, like many others, reads like liturgy in common speech, with most stanzas here beginning in the confessional voice: I peel, I strip, I cut, I place, along with certain repetitions that echo incantation: “hard winter which might not come, / hungry children who would.”   

The speaker’s father . . . holds a godlike place in her life, baptizing
the faithful and the lapsed alike in the Elk River. With his “King James /high in the air,” his children paid attention, paid respect to a man
who could wash earthly sins away in the “swirling, saving water.” 

In fact, a prayerfulness (and equally a railing against religiosity) infuses the collection, so appropriate considering the poet’s father was a preacher. He appears throughout the collection to warn and admonish the budding girl of the fate of Lot’s unnamed wife, is “shamed by daughters singing ‘Bad Moon Rising,’ / dancing in satin underwear,” and refuses the young speaker’s even trying on blue jeans that “shimmy past thighs, hips, around my waist” over new curves. The “eternal glare” of the speaker’s father lords over her growing past girlhood, and he holds a godlike place in her life, baptizing the faithful and the lapsed alike in the Elk River. With his “King James/ high in the air,” his children paid attention, paid respect to a man who could wash earthly sins away in the “swirling, saving water.” Other times, the speaker is “washed in nothing / more than light, heat, and guilt / planted deep” by her father’s tough love, calling herself “a girl / home-grown on the Ten Commandments, / the Golden Rule, and a black leather belt / with a glowering brass buckle, used liberally / by strong hands—a lesson in each lick.” 

Wild oats will have their way, and Childress’s poems of physical and emotional growth yearn outward into curiosity and experience. These attempts at connection are often painful, as the speakers learn the sometimes difficult truth of sexual awakening “on the wrong side of a bar, / in the wrong bed.” These poems of awakening are interwoven with tales of memorable women from the bible: Leah, Lot’s wife, Bathsheba, Salome, Sarah, Magdalene, the nameless concubine. Childress easily steps into these poignant persona pieces, women who open their hearts and their sorrowful fates to her, full-throated in grief, deception, and submission—each one longing for agency and acknowledgment. “Leah’s Aubade” is especially wrenching: “I know I am not the one you bargained for, / not the one you labored in fields / for seven years to marry. I am the wasted / bride price …” The book seems to pick up speed as we weave back and forth, a kind of poetic Bolero, spinning and unspinning tales of the past and present, reality and fable. “Salome’s Ghazal” depicts this heightening energy, with the line of emphasis in each stanza ending in “danced”: “Thinking of John who spurned my incessant advances / Swaying to the suggestion of his coming doom, I danced.”  

Just as the opposite of Persephone’s dreaded Underworld is the waiting springtime with Demeter aboveground, Childress pays homage to her own mother, to the “housewife’s dream.” A woman who labored day after day to put “dish, dish, dish” on the table for five, “a pastor’s wife who gave to the poorer, / prayed for the lost, witnessed to backsliders, comforted the sick, / spent her life washing clothes and smart-mouths out with soap …” Childress’s Demeter may have been the strongest woman she ever knew, but a woman she hoped like the devil never to become. Of course, motherhood and wife/partnerhood can be a joy, an honor, and arguably the most important jobs in the world—but everything, even the roles we seek and dream of, has an “Underside” that cries into the pillow at night. 

As the cover of this very human collection proclaims, red is the fiery saving grace, the flame that cauterizes wounds with mystery and wholeness, the pure defiance rendered down to the toes, the garnet embedded in pomegranate, the fruit picked from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as reparation for the women we are and by God will be, the refusal to stray too far from the lens of inclusion—a lens that captures the possible of our mind, yes, our purpose that may or may not include a family or wedding vows, but also the holiness of monthly blood and womb, the it’s about time to stand tall for our own self squarely within the frame.  

Poet, playwright, essayist, and editor, Linda Parsons is the poetry editor for Madville Publishing and the copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee. She is published in such journals as The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, Terrain, The Chattahoochee Review, Baltimore Review, Shenandoah, and American Life in Poetry. Her sixth collection, Valediction, contains poems and prose. Five of her plays have been produced by Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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