Monday, June 9, 2014

Review of Elizabeth Oakes' LEAVE HERE KNOWING

by Elizabeth Oakes

Wind Publications, 2013

ISBN: 9781936138524

69 pages


As mentioned in my interview with Elizabeth Oakes, I first met her several years ago at a reading and panel discussion held as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, but I was introduced to her poetry in 2009 through her intriguing collection, The Luminescence of All Things Emily.

Karen L. George

Review of Elizabeth Oakes' Leave Here Knowing

Elizabeth Oakes first volume of poetry, The Farmgirl Poems, (Pearl Editions, 2005), which portrayed her childhood on a rural Kentucky farm, won the 2004 Pearl Poetry Prize. The Luminescence of All Things Emily (Wind Publications, 2009) re-imagined poet Emily Dickinson's life through the viewpoints of her sister Vinnie, her brother Austin, his lover Mabel, his wife Sue and people employed in the Dickinson household. In Mercy in the New World (Wind Publications, 2011) Oakes recreated the world of a 17th century Puritan woman through persona poems in the voice of Mercy, a composite of poet Anne Bradstreet's two sisters. Oakes, who holds a Ph.D from Vanderbilt University, co-founded and co-edited the Kentucky Feminist Writers Series, and taught Shakespeare and women's poetry for over twenty years. She lives with her artist husband, John, in Bowling Green, Kentucky and Sedona, Arizona, and blogs on art and writing at

            In her fourth poetry collection, Leave Here Knowing, Oakes sets out on a quest to discover more about herself as both an earthly and spiritual being in her current incarnation by exploring other places, other times, and other selves. The title is taken from Chandogya Upanishad translated by Eknath Easwaran, part of the texts which form the basis of the Hindu religion: "Those who leave here knowing who they are and what they truly desire have freedom everywhere, both in this world and in the next."  

            Leave Here Knowing is divided into six sections. In the first, titled "On my Mother's Side," Oakes writes about those she terms in the Preface as her "soul mothers," which for her includes not only her birth mother, but historical, literary, Biblical, and mythological mothers such as Eve, Mary the mother of Jesus, Kali, Sappho, Anne Yale Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf. In the book's first poem, an ekphrastic one inspired by a Thomas Trevelyn watercolor called "The Sixth Day of Creation," Oakes says:

            Even the sun is not in the sky.
            It is in the green, around Eve.

            Eve reaches into that sun,
            toward a word. It is so right,
            that beginning world, her rising,
            a word in the sun. It is so right.

            She is reaching for it now.

This beginning poem contains the colors "amber," "blue," "gold," and "green." Color and art are important motifs continued throughout the book, as are imagination, creation, words and writing, language, voice and silence. The beautiful, haunting image of Eve "in the green" reaching into the sun for a word is a surprising turn in the poem that suggests Eve as the mother of language, as giving birth to language, as perhaps the original Muse, further suggested by the word "uttered" in the poem's title. Oakes emphasizes the significance of having a voice ("reaching for a word") by her masterful use of sound in this poem, as in the repeated vowels sounds (assonance) in "Birds curl," "Adam lies asleep. Eve rises," "Eve reaches," and the repeated consonant sounds (alliteration) in "diluted / trees and grass, its fish and ocean," "his side into the sun," as well as the internal rhyme created by a phrase like "toward a word."  The poem continually uses the "s" sound, known as one of the fricative consonant sounds, which creates a sizzling sensation in the poem that beautifully echoes the energy of creation. Oakes creates another effective turn in the poem's last line: "She is reaching for it now." Eve isn't staying put in the past, but is brought forward into the present by Oakes' use of the word "now," which foreshadows one of the major themes of this collection: how time and being are fluid, as well as the importance of connection, being connected to each other and the natural world. This poem also uses contrasting words and ideas that will be repeated: "falling" and "rising," just one example that will begin to establish another of the book's themes: the dualities of existence. "Birds," "wings," "angels," "sun," "ocean," and "water" appear in this poem for the first time, but they will reappear throughout the collection.

            Another poem of the first section, "To Sappho," carries the thread of women having a voice and the opposite of "all the church fathers / and all the puritans / and all the patriarchs / and all the witch hunters" trying to silence women. In the following poem "In Memoriam," 17th century Anne Yale Hopkins' writing has not survived, so Oakes suggests we honor her and other women silenced through the years by reserving a blank page in every anthology, ending the poem with the moving lines "This page is for you, / so they cannot silence your silence." This theme continues into the third section poem "The Survivors Speak," which references the female holocaust during the European witch craze.

            The second section of Leave Here Knowing, comprised of only one poem titled the same as the section, "Being Born Again and Again," speaks to one of the book's central themes the soul being reincarnated countless times. The poem ends with an allusion to the "river of Lethe" which in Greek mythology made you forget your past life.

            The third section titled "Images of Lives" is a series of persona poems in which Oakes imagines other selves. In "My Kimono of Earth and Air" she is a Japanese woman who has "breasts like teacups, / hips two silk fans" who "feeds babies / with mouths / like roses"; in "Love Song, from the Sinagua Petroglyphs" a woman from a pre-Columbia tribe that resided in what is now Arizona; and in "Runes Reader" a diviner whose "name was something / like Herutha, and she / shook destiny in her hands." The poem "The Daughter I'd Seen Before" continues the theme of birth, cycles of life, connection, and reincarnation:
            ...She sucks her thumb, making
            a circle of herself, flows into herself,
            as we flow into each other, making a circle
            of ourselves.     

The poem also repeats the words "circle," "moon," and "womb," images that repeat throughout the book, along with "rings," "bowls," "nests," and "nesting dolls," suggesting birth, nurturing, connection. In this section there are also repeated uses of other circular shapes: eyes and mouths, and images of growth and cycles seeds, berries, gardens, and forests. Water, an image of birth and the source of all life appears in "Once you Were the Riverboat Captain" and "Yes," the final poem of the third section. In "Yes" there are two characters, two voices, an "I," a "you," and a "we." The two are riding horses "over the steppes," which suggests to me places like Eastern Europe or Central Asia, perhaps back in the 13th or 14th century during the Mongolian Empire, but it could just as easily refer to Patagonia, South America, the sagebrush steppe in Nevada, or the prairie in the Great Plains. I suspect Oakes left it intentionally unspecific to go along with the theme of fluidity of time and place. I found this poem to be central to the collection, not only because of its physical place in the collection, but in its themes and repeated motifs, and its mastery of form and layered meaning. It echoes the theme of duality by using paired contrasting words as in "We ride early and late" and "male and female." The couplet form of this poem also echoes the idea of duality, of the Ying and Yang that makes up a complete whole, and of the two that ride together in this poem.  The idea of steppes is also mirrored in the couplets lines, the first line markedly longer than the second line, and it creates a sense of tension and motion in the poem, further created by the fact that the first line of each couplet, except for the first, is a back and forth between the I and the you:  "I say..." and "You say..." and then in the middle of the poem the order reverses with "You say.." followed by "I say..." This central couplet has line lengths almost the same, breaking the previous and following pattern of unequal line lengths.  This creates a sense of the "I" and "you" becoming equal which mirrors the meaning of the lines: "You say we may be each other / I say this being human is a mirage." The poem repeats the idea of a spiritual journey or quest, the idea of connection of self to other selves and the whole of consciousness. There are all kinds of motion, duality, and fluidity in the poem. They are crossing a river, they seem to be becoming each other, and on the verge of changing from earthly to spiritual form, ending this life to eventually take on another form.  The poem ends with the lines "You say next time we will be male and female / I say yes" which suggest that in their next life they might be more balanced, more of the male and female mixed equally and the "yes" gives such a sense of joy and completion to the poem, saying "yes" to this life and death and the next life, to the mystery and discovery of each life to come. The fact that Oakes uses no punctuation in the poem further emphasizes the motif of fluidity, of reincarnation, a continual circle of lives. This last poem of the section is a perfect transition to the next section, called "Bardo: What It May Be Like," because it is about transition from one phase of existence to the next.

            Oakes introduces this fourth section by defining Bardo as: "Tibetan Buddhist word for our existence between lives, that nebulous place and time that can be described only by simile, metaphor, analogy, not remembered." The poems in this section are imaginings of what that in-between experience is like when the soul leaves one body and re-incarnates into another. In the first poem, "From Non-duality to Duality," she describes Bardo as "a place you'll have to'll need equipmentropes / for a bridge, spikes to anchor them," and later "It's made by the same movement / as the glaciers, as the sun / across your kitchen floor." Oakes effectively uses concrete images to describe something abstract, so that it comes alive through the reader's senses. This poem also emphasizes the fluidity of this in-between space and place by the use of contrasting words and ideas: "tropics" and "ice," "glaciers" and "sun." In the next poem, "Two Pisces Leave Bardo: An Allegory," she describes two souls leaving Bardo (pictured as an ocean), approaching the moment of re-incarnation as "Land rises with the next waves. / We swim toward it. // Like some leviathan, life / rushes at us, opens its maw." This poem of transition to the next life is full of motion, there's the repeated motif of opposites: falling and flying, rising and diving, still and drifting, sky and ocean, land and ocean. In "Jean Allegory" the taking on of a new body, the beginning of a new incarnation is compared to the way jeans feel when "washed and left / in the dryer too long." In the poem "At the Motel Samsara" Oakes accompanies the moment of reincarnation, of being reborn, with more of the round images we've seen in earlier poems:  "The moon a pearl, a navel, a hypnotist's / watch swinging, a car with one headlight."

            Section five, "Pilgrimage" Glastonbury, England, July 2008," explores the idea of going on physical pilgrimages and the idea of connecting to places that resonate with us. Doors are an important repeated image in this section, an image of transition, of opening to transformation, to what we can discover on the other side. In the first poem, "Door to St. John's Church," there is a key to the door that's "worn / from a thousand years of locking and unlocking," again an image of opposites, and ends with an image of transformationthe poet transforms the photo so that "The door / warms, becomes as alive / as a tree still with its sap." This section is filled with images of angels and flying, repeated references to being a tourist or pilgrim, and details of the churches' architecture and sculptures, echoing the ekphrastic poems seen throughout the book.

            The last section, "Where Soul Meets Body," embodies living fully in the current moment, fully inhabiting this cross-section of body and soul. Its beginning poem, "Always in the Medieval Sky," another ekphrastic one, talks of angels omnipresent in medieval paintings and describes how they are painted as "the way gold, which is / of this earth, is needed to paint / angels, which are not" emphasizing the duality of existence. The poem, "Body and Soul," is divided into two parts, "Leaving the Body" and "Coming Back," again this theme of duality and transformation. Oakes describes the leaving with a paradoxical pairing of opposites"I was leaving and left, / more than myself and less," and the return with hauntingly beautiful images "Silence, then a sound / like insects in a haiku / My soul enfolded // Lao-Tzu's ten thousand / things unfolded like / a child's pop-up book." The final poem of the book, "Being Born," envisions a soul newly incarnated in a body, full of questions:
            What map guided me?
            What road did I travel?
            On what ocean sail?
            What river follow?

            Who was rowing?
            Steering?  Guiding?
The book ends, as it began, creating a perfect circle, in a moment of creation, a soul beginning another journey in a new body, another self in another place. The poem ends with the soul asking "What is this wonderful / place I've come to...and then set / about to learn its lessons."

            Elizabeth Oakes' Leave Here Knowing is a collection that travels through varied times and places, is experienced through diverse characters from birth to death to Bardo and rebirth, and viewed through the lens of many works of art. Yet the poems speak to each other through repeated imagery patterns and recurrent themes of birth, death, transformation, connection, quest, duality, and fluidity to create a pleasing sense of wholeness. I left Oakes' poems feeling as if I'd been on an enchanted voyage, led by a master and yet left to discover for myself, with the assurance that this was a journey barely beginning.


Karen George lives in Northern Kentucky. Since she retired from computer programming to write full-time, she has enjoyed traveling to historic river towns, mountain country, and her first European trip. Her chapbook, Into the Heartland, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2011, and her chapbook, Inner Passage, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. You can find her  work in Memoir, The Louisville Review, Tupelo Press 30/30 Website, Wind, Border Crossing, Permafrost, and Adanna.

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