My first official review–by Mary Ellen Miller

Mary Ellen Miller’s review of Seeking the Other Side shows up in today’s Daily News. I am so grateful to her for the thorough and beautiful review and thank her especially for closing with her own memory of our son, Casey. Thank you, Mary Ellen!

Here it is, both copied and the link.

Poet Olmsted is a genius

“seeking the other side,” by Jane Olmsted. Louisville: Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2015. 101 pages, $16.

Well, here is “God’s plenty” (as John Dryden supposedly said of Chaucer) indeed. How well this assessment applies to Jane Olmsted’s “seeking the other side.”

The riveting cover design comes from Yvonne Petkus’ “Braced” and partially echoes the book’s motifs.

There is so much here. An introduction by poet and Western Kentucky University graduate Maureen Morehead is sensitive, thought-provoking and thought-assuaging. She writes (for one tiny taste of this elegant essay): “And it becomes a language that Jane Olmsted assumes for her private journey toward light, as these are ultimately sacred poems and those of us who enter them walk with the poet on sacred ground.”

And then there is Olmsted’s own prologue, as arresting as a poem. “I think of the ‘other side’ not just as what’s across the line between life and death, between myself and my son (the murder of Olmsted’s son is the crucial catalyst behind this book) but as what’s across any other real or illusory line that stifles access to the fullness of life.”

The son these lines refer to is Olmsted’s third son, who was shot to death when he was 20 years old.

In this prologue, Olmsted explains the structure of the book. Part I (“Ways of Touching”) has poems that are not specifically about Casey, Jane and Ken Casey’s son, but “touch may be physical, of the hand or eye or ear – any of the senses – but it can also express a spiritual longing, loneliness as well as joy and humor.”

The first poem in this section, “A Body of Poetry,” ends with:

Beneath the aching rib a shadow beckons.

“Aching rib” is so rich in denotation and connotation that it does not need any explication from me.

“Naming the Flowers” is almost unearthly in its beauty – a kind of brilliant but frightening nightmare, more like a vision. Read it very slowly. Actually, all the poems should be read very slowly. Finally, they go down smoothly, but they may require some serious reflection for full understanding.

“Artist at Five” is about Casey as a child. Other poems touch on subjects from his short life. There is yearning. There is longing. Olmsted has an almost uncanny ear for rich and unusual metaphor. Here is “Whisper,” the last poem in this section:

————-, I am in no hurry
And am learning to listen underneath
When someone says
it doesn’t matter and all is well.

“Listen underneath”? I think it is part of this poet’s unique gift to express the metaphysical in physical terms.

Now, we come to Part II (“tree forms”) and poems that come from the author’s 2011 chapbook. There are 16 of them. Some were begun before Casey’s death when the author camped in the Rockies, seeking even then a closer connection to the natural, especially trees. All of the poems can be read without knowledge of Casey’s death or any other specific loss. The poems seek meaning. “Aspen Hieroglyph” strikes me as especially beautiful. Quoting, even a whole stanza, will fracture its meaning. Read it slowly, savor its meaning and you will see what I am talking about. Olmsted’s attention to nature is poetically scientific. This poet is a genius.

The final section (“the casey poems”) includes 15 masterful poems, all shaven and shorn of the slightest hint of self-pity or sentimentality. My hope is that Olmsted will eventually have these printed separately with her introduction. There is no way I can do justice to poems like “Memento Mori,” “The Weight of a Human Heart” – this poem began its life as an essay – and the closing poem, “Requiem of the Bristlecone: Pine at Lake Haiyaha.” This last poem closes:

We gave and took, you and I, and evermore.
I fill my hands and lift them to you.
Drink. Then let us go.

Olmsted treads lightly nowhere. There is no corner of grief too dark for her to enter. Her courage reminds me of a line from Robert Frost’s “Mowing:” “Anything but the truth would have seemed too weak.” I am made happier and enriched and consoled by her honesty and by the brilliance of her talent.

Please forgive a personal note: I knew Casey. I loved Casey. How vividly I remember him bringing his new baby girl down to the Women’s Study House to present her to Trish Jaggers and me. I always kidded Casey about looking like a Greek god, told him he should become a model. Now he tenderly lifted his baby from her pretty, little pinkified nest and moved toward the window for better light. How lovely she was! And Casey was even more handsome, as if his face was lit from within by his love and pride. Ah, god. Jesus and Buddha. Casey honored them both.

Great show on the poems, Jane. Great show on your son, Ken and Jane.

Shine on, Casey.

— Reviewed by Mary Ellen Miller, Western Kentucky University English department.

Editor’s note: The author will speak in WKU Libraries’ Kentucky Live Series at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Western Room of the Kentucky Building. A book signing will follow.

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