Love and longing in local poetry book

‘Body of Water’ by Madeline Hennessey, Ra Press, 2017

Saranac Lake resident Madeline Hennessey’s book of poems takes off from the double-entendre of its title to dive deep into details of the natural world, absorbed and transformed into poems of memory, longing and ripples of sound.

From the first poem, “Artifacts,” the reader’s senses are awakened by the author’s attentions:

“… the recess bell has called

us back inside, milkweed’s feathered seeds drifting like snow, twin wings of a maple split by a fingernail and sticky on the thumb.”

As though memory itself is that sticky substance we cannot quite get off our fingers.

“My hands stick to things,” she writes later, “I can’t put them down: a comb, glass … a black hair twisting inside …”

There are hints of lost loves, lost relatives, the self lost and found, travels, desires, but always a body that has held and holds its experience of life and love on its skin. “The body has ways/of teaching us breaking;/shell, skin, membrane/making space in the self/to let something else in.”

Place plays an important role in these poems, the sea, a frozen lake, highways, dirt roads, sometimes the specificity of, for example, Lake Huron, or Floodwood Pond. Several poems take us to China, where the narrator experiences monsoon, “[a]n expanse of landscaped gardens … gone to sand and stunted trees,” ruined temples. A multisectioned narrative poem shows how the narrator loses her sight and slowly learns to see clearly again in that setting. This is an apt metaphor for a poet who has learned to see so lyrically:

… So when that heavy pearl,

iridescent silver fingernail, perfect egg, perfect eye, peers

through my window, the dark mouth of the fire-pit opening

to the sky, my eyes no longer resist the moon.

I admire the sonic play of these poems. Even the mundanity of doing laundry at the laundromat is rendered magical by sound: “You are in charge of quarters/and detergent; I choose the settings and separate lights/from colors from darks.” The chewiness of “charge,” “detergent,” and “choose” play off against the sibilance of the s sounds throughout that sentence. In this line from “Waking,” the w’s and long o’s are a kind of breeze flowing through: “I recall an open/window, some warm body not my own,/somewhere long ago.”

This is Hennessey’s first book of poems, and it offers a pleasing glimpse into the mind of careful observation and imagination combined with poetic technique.