Let It Be a Dark Roux
By Sheryl St. Germain
Autumn House Press, 151 pp., $17.95
With the new and selected poems in Let It Be a Dark Roux, Sheryl St. Germain offers a kind of time-lapse of two decades of her life and art. Formative years in New Orleans, drug abuse in her family, good sex and bad news, a trip to South America, how Northern snow plays with the emotions -- it's a passionate, sometimes wrenching compendium with a few notable weaknesses.
St. Germain, who heads the graduate creative-writing program at Chatham University, is a poet of blood and bones and bare skin, naked emotion, humid heat -- and of the sensual bayou country ("Spanish moss curled like gray snakes / crowning thick-breasted oaks") first summoned here in 1987's The Mask of Medusa. Some earlier works stand out: "Addiction," for instance, is a fearless poem about how much she loved helping her junkie brother shoot up, and shooting up herself. Others vividly sketch a complicated home life; even "Hurricane Season," if built around a rather familiar life-metaphor, is buoyed by her lyricism, evoking "[t]he smell of oceans in the wrong place / of something diseased, lost fish."
St. Germain's narrative impulse sometimes leads her down well-trodden paths. Many of the poems from 1994's How Heavy the Breath of God Such, betray a willful exoticism about South America ("I wanted to fall into the malarial waters, / to be born again, a thing alive / and dark with knowing") without really examining it.
Indeed, with its frequent recourse to such fundamental phenomena (and everyday poetic words) as "breath" and "blood," St. Germain's collected work, read straight through, can begin to feel overfamiliar.
Yet there's something of a rebirth evident in the book's previously uncollected work. Ten new poems -- many reckoning with snow -- include "Six Months Sober," a pretty prayer to clarity ("But snow's all eyes, cousin of the sun's Apollo"). "Winter Solstice," which begins "Sometimes the dear ones disappear / despite it all," etches us with its sense of hope in the face of loss: "we speak to them as if they were still here, / the way you might speak to a comatose one / you hope will wake one day and say I heard / every word you said, / every one."
"The Wild Ones" and "Night" are taut domestic poems about arrest and the ravages of emotional neglect, respectively. "Tinnitus," in which the narrator rejects the doctor's advice to ignore the sourceless sounds inside her ear, includes this thematic summation: "Of course / I listen to my newly wounded ear: I have / great respect for the wounded, they know / something about survival."
St. Germain's newest poems, moreover, feel more universal than her earlier work -- less dependent on the "I" and more on the eye that surveys landscapes and relationships for meaning. And her concluding, eight-poem "Suite for New Orleans" is a funny, defiant and sorrowful post-Katrina offering that takes us there and back, wised up but smiling.
-- Bill O'Driscoll