Review of Sister, Blood and Bone by Paula Cary
Medina, OH: Blood Pudding Press, 2013. $7.00. paper.
Sister, Blood and Bone by Floridian poet Paula Cary is a ten-poem collection remembering and exploring the narrator's relationship with her younger sister Lisa, to whom it is also dedicated. It comes by way of Blood Pudding Press, which is described on its blog as "an ittie bittie indie press...specializing in poetry and artsy little misfit offerings." Cary's book makes sense in this misfit world. The cover is graced with a painting of a dolled up Dia de Los Muertos poppet, but the poems are mostly about exploring the bond of sister blood in the dangerous, enveloping haven of a dense natural world. Both sisters are described as having a connection to the cycle of life and death through symbols of death - they both collect bones. The older sister is fascinated with Mexico and Dia de Los Muertos, which is mentioned frequently throughout the book. The younger sister has a risky hobby in cave diving. The poet recollects a shared childhood in the forest, leading to an insinuated separation through school and inevitable aging and the growing apart that results.
The strongest poems reflect on the poet's memories of their girlhood spent exploring creeks and ravines. These are shimmering free verse vignettes that are simmered down to almost nothing but images. "In the Shallows" is especially lovely, the sound of water reflected in the consonance of "The minnow slipping through/ The edges of her fingers/ Which she catches/ With her other hand/ The minnow's dance cupped/ Its silver body shimmering/ In the dusk of a summer evening." Cary's description is strongest in "Turtle Skeleton." The reader watches the two bone collecting sisters find a prize in a "Hollow, brittle tortoise skull/ An empty hull of backbone/ Rounded cave of missing limbs." Once again, the sound of the words lovingly reflects an empty hollow space. It is wonderful to read out loud. Both poems are short, with only one verse each, and one punctuation mark signifying the end. The interior of each poem is its own little humid space, a terrarium of time and memory. Cary is best in these condensed, intense poems. They are almost Japanese in their simplicity, with an emphasis on the cycles of the natural world, the intention understated, and therefore more powerful.
It is when the narrator is forthright about her emotional intention that her poems feel weaker. The last three poems, "Girlhood Games," "Will You Ever," and "My One and Only Lisa" venture away from the intense focus on the bones, ravines, and water of the first seven and look more closely at the present emotional connection between the sisters. "Girlhood Games" is especially pale, a remembrance of playground phenomena (Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board, jump rope, dodging bullies) with no images or memories personal enough to strengthen it. She says, "All I know is/ An entire generation/ Passed between us/ And I know nothing// Nothing of your/ girlhood games/ And you know nothing/ Of mine." It seems like a disconnect after the intense relationship that is built and presented in the first seven poems.
"Will You Ever" is the strongest reference to Cary's interest in Mexico in the book, with considerations of travel. Cary wonders if her sister will ever "crave Mexico's bright/ Crayola colors" or "dance/ In a foreign place with foreign men/ Spinning you on the dance floor?" This line of inquiry is interesting, but I would have liked more arresting imagery. "My One and Only Lisa" is a strong poetic description of the heart-stopping risk of the cave diving that her sister loves. It cycles back to the first poem in the book, "Advice for a Sister Going to College," which inserts "a wetsuit/ Placed among the party dresses/ A black seal-skinned hood/ Amongst the cotton hooded sweatshirts." I appreciate finally getting to see the cave diving in action once it was referenced in the first poem. All three of these poems tend to feel as though they are wandering. They are set in their stanza length, but the choice seems almost dictated by the way a poem is "supposed" to look rather than an intentional stylistic choice. The same could be said of the meandering line endings.
I think I would have liked more of the short, splendid descriptive poems, and also more cave diving. The elements of risk and danger are presented and explored beautifully in these poems, and I feel the tension in the relationship between the two sisters more vividly as reflected by the images of death and bones and water. I think these themes could have been intensified by a more thorough exploration of the younger sister's interest in cave diving. I love the idea of a collection centered around Mexico though, and would be very interested in reading another chapbook by Cary that focused on her travels. Cary herself seems lovely on her blog, Poet Hound, and professes a desire to make poetry accessible to more people. I did enjoy her book, and hope to read more of her poems in the future. Going back to the idea of poetry for a misfit world, I really appreciate that her poems are emotionally rich, interesting and accessible, so despite my criticisms, I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in reading poetry who is new to the craft, especially teenage girls. This would be a wonderful book for writing teachers to use in workshop situations to show how good, interesting writing is getting published in the small press world, and how that world can be made accessible to anyone willing to explore themselves deeply and write about it. This is something I think Cary does very well.
On a side note, the chapbook came bound in a fun purple yarn. I thought this was a really sweet touch. Looking at Blood Pudding Press, it seems like they pay a lot of attention to details like that in all of their chapbooks. How can you not support that kind of love and detail?
Ashley Roach is a poet and librarian living in Memphis, TN where she is working on her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Memphis. She is the coordinator of the Impossible Language reading series.