Book Review

Katherine Smith on
poems by Linda Parsons
Madville Publishing, 2023


With its coherence of theme and consistently surprising language, set to the music of Appalachia, Linda Parsons’s new book Valediction is one of the most subtly nuanced books to come out of the post-pandemic period. For all of us who have felt the earth shift during this time, Valediction’s beautifully crafted poems provide the gift of solid ground. 

The poet deftly brushes personal loss into the universal with a light almost unnoticeable stroke like carefully gradated shadings of value on a color wheel. The title poem of the book found in Part 1 is a gorgeous free verse lyric in which the voice of a dove provides comfort “cooing all’s well” after the speaker loses a beloved aged dog, “the first creature I saw when the needle was done / and my sheepdog limped into last light.” The dove, like the garden, “comes not to forbid mourning, / but trills core deep, beyond the senses, glances back to make sure I follow/its white-tipped tail.”  The poet like the ocarina asks the reader to “bear all the light coming.”   

The poet sets out on a pilgrimage through the worlds of animals, plants, and minerals. Ghosts are as vividly fleshed out as the gardens they haunt. Both humans and plants are richly textured, and the poems makes breathtaking leaps between the two: 

The gardens seem to grow richer before the first frost, a last hurrah before the ghostly breath
passes over, the shrub and drift roses still hot pink and coral, nandina berries reddening for
Christmas, spirea and viburnum blood-tinged at the edges. This sometimes happens in those
who are dying, a sudden animation and presence called terminal lucidity. (“Visitation: Bright”) 

The speaker is in love with the living world and with her ghosts, even those who behaved without skill, loving them for the “Bright living” within them: 

I walked through the beds and laid my hands on the forest pansy redbud, mottled myrtles,
beauty berry and rosehips, the paperbark maple’s peeling scrolls. Each wrote its name
on my path. I thanked and blessed them for their bright living, even as we go forth to die.”
(“Visitation: Bright”) 

Although Valediction is a book of elegies, it could just as well be titled “Bright Living,” a theology of flowers. The book takes the reader through a labyrinth, a meditative, botanical journey, searching for the sacred in both the living and the dead.  

Particularly strong are the prose poems entitled “Visitations” which run throughout the four sections of the book, bringing the dead back to life, vivid as the sensorially rich gardens Parsons describes. The poem “Visitation: Mother,” in section 3 is particularly telling with its insight that “Sometimes the field of our story is equally ruined. We are sometimes the leaving and sometimes the left.” In lyric prose this poem imagines, like many of the poems in Valediction, a garden, lush with “wild-haired spirea, chartreuse in spring and summer with snowflake flowers.” Into this garden “fall fungus” appears. Human relationships arrive as well—in this case the speaker’s once destructive mother, now suffering from dementia. This mother no longer remembers the daughter who takes her hand, described as “silky.” 

Valediction has a luminous, spiritual quality, but it is the earthy
language—precise and chiseled, with the earthy diction and humor
of Appalachia threaded through even the most somber poems—that
bring the poems to life.

Like the rich green vegetation and gardens of Appalachia that provide the backdrop for human relationships, the landscape is both mirror and backdrop of human frailties. All gardens are Edenic and all gardens are forbidden, like earth, places of both sin/fungus and salvation/olive branch. 

Valediction has a luminous, spiritual quality, but it is the earthy language—precise and chiseled, with the earthy diction and humor of Appalachia threaded through even the most somber poems—that bring the poems to life. This humor can be found in such poems as “Airing it Out” where the poet writes of herself, “I never was a child of the sun, / basted with Coppertone like the Sunday bird.” Another poem that made this reader laugh out loud was “Visitation: Winged” with its description of angry “mockers” with their “icepick beaks.” The speaker “borrow[s] her granddaughter’s bike helmet to mow.” The language veers from humorous description of running to the car, “my purse over my head,” to the somber reflection on how the “pandemic has imprinted on our consciousness . . . our impulse towards fight or flight embedded in our brain’s synapses. Huff, huff.” With great lightness and agility, the poet moves from humor to sorrow, from earthy to transcendent: “When will my hand reach out to yours as we stand tall and bareheaded once again?” (“Visitation: Winged”) 

These are poems that find meaning and mercy in the face of loss whether it is the loss of a father, of a mother (particularly beautiful poems are the free verse poem “Princess Slip” and on the facing page the even more striking accompanying prose poem “Visitation: Princess”); the loss of a beloved Sheltie; a fig tree; an ex-spouse; or the loss of community due to quarantine. These are poems that hold each loss up to the light of precisely observed and gorgeously rendered detail: “I do believe we can shape our grief / solid as brick—or torch it like straw. / I do believe in what’s beyond/ fence and yellow road. I believe / in the hourglass turned on its side, /  spilling my own glorious tide.” (“Believe”).  

In the final section, Valediction moves to the joy of life, here represented by travel. The poems set in Cuba are full of the joy of discovery through the eyes of experience. “Travels with My Father” imagines how the father’s “salesman’s blood, now my slipstream” accompanies the speaker on her “quest for the bluest blue.” The lyric voice of the poet imagines how her late father, who suffered from dementia, would have “stalked me to the Partagas factory in Havana, wild / with leaf and aroma.” Even as the speaker walks through “the crumbling city” of Havana, she imagines the dead continuing to participate in the life of this world, taking home both cigars and “stories of vividly Guantanamo's bluest blues.” 

In Parsons’s masterful poems, the dead participate in life through the memory and a belief in the saving power of rendered, glowing detail. The final section of Valediction is drenched in the color blue, with its connotations of lightness, transcendence, sorrow, and, especially, redemption. These poems invite readers on a pilgrimage through their own gardens, their own bright living. 

Katherine Smith’s recent poetry publications include Boulevard, North American Review, Ploughshares, Mezzo Cammin, Cincinnati Review, Missouri Review, Southern Review, and many other journals. Her short fiction has appeared in Fiction International and Gargoyle. Her first book is Argument by Design (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2003). Her second book of poems is Woman Alone on the Mountain (Iris Press, 2014), and her third book is Secret City (Madville Publishing, 2022). She works at Montgomery College in Maryland, where she is poetry editor of Potomac Review.

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