Review of Blues Triumphant by Jonterri Gadson
Yes Yes Books, 2016. 96 pages. $18.00
Jonterri Gadson's Blues Triumphant is a crafted tapestry. Her opening crown of sonnets unravels into threads that tell the story of a woman's past, present and future, her relationships and musings.
The opening poem, a crown of sonnets titled "Rapture," is like seeing a huge Renaissance painting in a museum. It's hard to take it all in at once. There is the present, in Palm Beach, the past in Idaho, the future of the speaker's mother's death. The themes move from light mocking of religion to young love to racism to grief. After being swept into the larger picture, each repeated line in the crown becomes its own section for the rest of the book.
Blues Triumphant takes the poem "Rapture" and widens the sonnets' turns to take us from the forbidden to religion. Summer camp nights of talking about boys turn into days of understanding the Rapture. Girls in bikinis are later covered in t-shirts to hide their bodies from boys' gazes. A mother looks to her bible, only for her and her daughter to laugh at God's wrath. Most of the remaining poems are short lined and lyrical, heavy with imagery as in "Girl, 11"
A mouth is a sideways woman,
her curves and dips, the way she opens,
how her hollow center can sing.
There is also the prose poem "A Foster Mother's Child," the title giving hint to the complexity of relationships. The speaker craves the attention of the mother, but compares herself to the "little white kids" who "wore their bruises like plastic dollar store sheriff's badges that gave them authority over any anguish in my mother's house." The prose poem belies the difficulty in navigating a world where children's troubles are measured and considered in terms what can be seen, like "court documents falling out of a folder in the living room," and what cannot, a "conversation that ended" with a boy telling the speaker his parents wouldn't approve of a "black girl."
The mother and the father are recurring themes in the book, and their authority is wrapped up in religious belief. Jesus is compared to a mother in "Define: Mother" where he must deal with his followers "tug/ tug, tugging at his hems." In the opening sonnet, the speaker's mother finds "the perfect/ verse to help me understand that vengeance/ against boys who didn't call was the Lord's." Three "Patricide Epistles" bring us a view of an absent father whose memory the speaker is trying to erase as she lies about his death in Vietnam or a drunk driving accident. There is also the speaker's son, a teen finding his way through sexuality and depression as his single-mother struggles with parenthood. Like many of us, she thinks she will be a better parent than her own were. In "Cardinal Sin" she tells readers:
I don't love my son
the way I thought
my mother should love me
so I handed him a shoe box
to put the dead bird in
and shut the door.
As the poems echo back and forth through their repeated lines with the initial crown, so the past is repeated through generations.
Navigating "Blues Triumphant" takes time, several readings, and a thoughtful mind. The reader and the writer triumph in the end, both for having tackled difficult subjects and for finding ways to digest difficult themes.
You can purchase Blues Triumphant here.
Kristin LaTour's first full-length collection, What Will Keep Us Alive (2015), is available from Sundress Publications. Her work has been published in journals such as Massachusetts Review, Fifth Wednesday, Tinderbox and others. She lives and writes in Aurora, IL and teaches at Joliet Jr. College.