Thursday, July 18, 2019

Passing Through Humansville

by Karen Craigo

Sundress Publications, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-939675-78-1

77 pages

Karen Craigo is the editor and general manager of The Marshfield Mail, a weekly newspaper in southwestern Missouri. She is author of the collection, No More Milk (Sundress Publications, 2016), and the chapbooks, Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013), and Stone for an Eye (Kent State/Wick, 2004). Her poetry, fiction, essays and journalism are widely published, and she maintains a blog on writing, editing, and creativity, Better View of the Moon. She is the nonfiction editor and former editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review and the interviews editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

I've never met Karen Craigo in person. We're friends on Facebook, and I have been a fan of her poetry ever since I read her chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In, published by Hermeneutic Chaos in 2016, but now out of print. I reviewed her poetry collection, No More Milk on this blog in March 2018. —Karen L. George

Review of Karen Craigo's Passing Through Humansville

Karen Craigo's Passing Through Humansville explores, celebrates, and at times mourns and resists what it means to be human through her particular lens of curiosity, honesty, playfulness, urgency, tenderness and reverence. These poems take us inside a home, a car, a school, a church, a hospital, a coffeeshop; in the woods, a butterfly house, a cow pasture, at a concert, an art museum, and within reimagined Biblical stories. She examines the duality and mysteries of being human—layering images and scenes of beauty, connection, nurture, creativity, and the holy pinned against vulnerability, worry, violence, loneliness and loss. The book is dense with emotion and understanding. I’m going to concentrate on the poem’s ideas and images surrounding the human need to connect—the give and take of nurturing and being nurtured.

The beginning poem, "Meditation With Cat and Toddler," sets up the recurring dynamics of the complexities these poems examine:

            And here I sit with a body reluctant
            to bend, a brain that won’t still, a cat
that bumps me for attention, and a toddler
            who will come, who has punched
me in the eye for pure love.

We see a mother trying to nurture herself by meditating, but her toddler and the cat both want attention. The image of the cat bumping the mother perfectly mirrors and heightens the image of the toddler punching her “for pure love.”

The second poem, “Before He Was Born, I Sang Night Songs,” is lush with images of connection and the sweet, primal, holy intimacy of breastfeeding. She describes it as “the latch, firm, parasitic, drawing the nectar / down.” The word “parasitic” effectively echoes the “bump” of the cat, and the “punch” of the toddler. In the first poem, the “constant rumble / of om” echoes the sounds this mother and her son make in their connection: “the soft constriction of throat” as the baby latches onto her breast, and how he “still vibrates with my humming.” In the center of the poem is the mother’s breathtaking admission: “There is nothing on this sphere I won’t pull to me, / won’t sing to in the dark.” She speaks of how she too is nourished by feeding her son: “the last moment I am everything, his sweetness / and his sound.” In a later poem, “The Art of Rhetoric,” the mother and son are described with this beautiful image: “this baby beside me, / curled against my back like the comma…” The poem ends with the following stunning lines:

            there is nothing more convincing than
            the whispered swallows I hear behind me
            as my son works his bottle in his sleep.
            Each nearly silent gulp makes a claim.

In “On His Brother’s Second Birthday” a second, older son is “inconsolable” because he “misses the baby,” his brother, who is now two years old. The mother reveals she too misses the baby, and comforts the older son, herself, and us by the reminder, “our younger selves / don’t go away—they live on, / deeper and deeper within us.” She goes on, in a kind of dual direct address, including the reader in this intimate, moving scene:

            …We must believe
            an infant resides in all of us.
            Come. Sniff the hollow of my neck—
            a scent so soft you’re not
            even certain it’s there.

In the playful “Spelling Test Friday” the mother nourishes her son by helping him to learn: “I spar with words / like a pugilist,” and she in turn is fed by the knowledge that “he gets it,” understands “he’s going to do fine.” In “Avocado” she talks about the ripeness and fertility of her body— “the nurturing flesh.” “Good Night in the Blanket Fort” shows a mother who promises to sleep in a type of nest her and her son built with pillows and quilts, “walls” to “protect us from blue night.”

There are repeated images of breath and breathing in this collection, which fit into this theme of nourishment. When we breath, oxygen is inhaled into the lungs, moved into our blood that carries it to sustain our bodies, and the carbon dioxide is expelled through exhaling. In the poem “Tasseomancy,” the mother and son connect through sharing coffee, and they thirst “to know / what the future holds,” ending with the image of her son staring into her coffee cup, “close enough / to smell the other’s breath.” In poem 5 of the series “Ten Sources of Light,” a baby under a jaundice lamp is addressed with the following tender lines:

            You, little loaf,
            are almost risen. How
            warm you’ll feel
against me. I can’t wait
            to breathe you in.

This collection also celebrates our human need to connect with friends and siblings. One poem recounts a childhood memory, a circle of girls in the woods, joining their drops of blood to become “Scab Sisters,”—“it was holy, we were dryads rejoining the wood.” In “Total Knee Replacement,” the poet refers to the body and the operation her sister has undergone, but in the following lines, she suggests vital aspects of love and our connection to others:

            We come to rely on the hinges—
            how they lift us and let us down, soft.
            Most love requires collapse.
            We fold and unfold into the other,
            or wrap the self in the self.

There is such essential wisdom in the above lines, and in the poem’s closing lines, that again express the healing of her sister’s knee, but at the same time speak of life in general in a reverent, unforgettable way:

            try to remember:
            this is how we rise, and how
            we leave, and how we pray.

The poet also explores the nourishment of love exchanged between spouses. In “When We Find a Hurt Mouse,” the husband “is kind enough / to bear the injured to the yard, / then with one stomp save it / from hours of suffering.” What a powerful image of violence as a means to deliver comfort. She goes on to say “not all gentleness / is conveyed in a caress,” and to describe watching him “stroke the patchwork squares / of the giraffe’s neck, receive / a blue tongue the length / of his arm, offer it a bit / of grain” – such a gentle, compassionate connection, which implies each (the man, the giraffe, and the wife observing) is enriched. In poem 7 of the series “Ten Sources of Light,” the husband is portrayed in such a loving manner as he gets the coffeemaker set up at night for his wife’s morning coffee:

            …each night
            unfolds a filter,
            measures grounds
            with a wooden spoon,
            adds water and comes
to bed.

The poem ends with the lovely image of how the next morning the “green dot” of the coffeepot “is just / enough light to help / me find my way.”

Imagery of light, as in the above example, is also threaded through these poems. Light as a metaphor for energy, connection, protection, and hope. In the collection’s center, the ten poems in the series “Ten Sources of Light” contain different examples of light: the glow of a town seen on a hill while driving at night; a reporter watching the eclipse and asking others what they think of the sun; seeing the aurora borealis; flicking on a cigarette lighter at a Pink Floyd concert; and with her father, viewing fireflies light up the night sky. There are also contrasting images of life’s dualism, its darkness, in the poems—instances of when we can’t connect with others, and when we can’t nourish ourselves or others as much as we’d like. 

Besides connection between humans, this collection contains poems in which the author reflects on how we connect with the natural world. In “Speleology” she refuses to kill the spider above her pillow, which she describes exquisitely as “eight eyelashes affixed / to a speck.” The poem “Filibuster” retells the memory of a male teacher that makes her stand each day during a civics class in the garbage can with her nose pressed to a chalk mark on the blackboard. The poem ends with a stunning, redemptive image:

            I start to get
            the sunflower, whose every
            instinct makes it stand
            with its tall quorum,
            who together turn
            their backs on the dark.

This collection also delves into connection and nourishment through spirituality. In “I Come to the Garden Alone,” she tells a friend she terms “a better Christian” that she doesn’t believe in heaven or hell, but instead feels “a river / of intelligence courses through all things, / and we join it when we are lucky // enough to die.” She describes this flow of connection in the following way:

            We are paddling through otherness,
            and the molecules that enter her mouth
            on a gasp came from somewhere,
            and maybe once were in me, in the barista—
            in cave people, street preachers, nuns.

In the poem “Mary of Bethany,” during a church service, a woman rubs the bald spot of the man she loves. The poem ends with the beautiful observation:

            And isn’t that God, touching us
            where we’re most exposed,
            loving even our emptiness,
            those places soft with down.

Besides the hopeful moments portrayed in these poems of connection and nourishment, there are also moments of unsatisfied hunger, emptiness, discomfort and disconnection. There is such heartbreak in “For Brenna <3 Ernie” when a mother recreates the moment her son hands a picture he drew of himself and a girl named Brenna to that girl:
            When he gave it, he broke
            into grief, racking sobs,
            eyes closed in shame.
            He loves her.

The poem reveals with such tenderness the details of the picture he drew:

            his vision, two, standing,
            so happy and plain
            in their britches. It is
            simple. There is nothing
            easier; the beauty
            hurts him, each one
            dignified and glad,
            small arms open
            to possibility
            in the twin flags
            of their rectangle pants.

The poem “Inventory” talks about not having enough money to pay the bills. The narrator asks the question, “What is the world’s crime / that it should be forced to pay / and pay again?” She continues:

            …I know the feeling.
            Credit cards, rent, car insurance.
            Just going to the mailbox
makes me numb. And then
            I look around, see a clearcut
            where my life ought to be.

The collection’s title poem, “Passing Through Humansville,” references an actual town in Missouri, in which the narrator of the poem “slips[s] into and out of …both coming and going.” Besides the literal journeying in a car through a town called Humansville, the poem suggests the journey of a human lifetime. The driver passes through fog, which she depicts as “the layer of white like an old lady’s hair / spread out behind her in rapture.” This creates such a whimsical picture, and to me, suggests the idea of the old woman being “raptured” to the hereafter. The poem continues: “Why not? / The oldest vessel can still hold / / a drink, or else we’d call it a shard.” This image of the woman’s body as a vessel infers she can still nourish and be nourished—that there’s still life in her. The ending stanza is so full of the duality of being human—living and dying:

            And maybe I’ve stepped on the ground
            where my ashes will light.
            Maybe, unknowing, I’ve danced.

The last two poems of the collection talk about the nourishment a teacher provides for her students, who appear to be learning English as a second language. In “Walking Papers” “students are learning / where to put the stress, what vowels / to flatten or round, how to hear / the difference in consonants…” It felt to me that this teacher is also speaking of language as a means to connect and nourish us, similar to song. The poem ends with the teacher’s compassion for her students, “those stonemasons and carvers, / painters and metalsmiths, / heading off into the unknown, everything they own heavy / against their shoulder.”

In the collection's last poem, titled "The Movement You Need," the teacher again delves into the components that make up the English language:

            The key, you know, is emphasis. English
            is a stress-toned language, and we listen
            for the punch, in a word, in a sentence,
            and that extra oomph, that little flex,
            is all we need to make sense of a thing.

And then she sings “Hey Jude” with the students who she says are “visitors here, / people who have been misunderstood / by cashiers and taxi drivers, / the lilting mismatch of Arabic, Polish, / Yoruba, Japanese.” The teacher begins singing “Hey Jude” and that has made all the difference—they are connected and nourished:

            …but today in class
            we layer vowel over vowel, and we sing,
            no hesitation, all voices present and clear
            from the first “Hey, Jude.”

The poem and the book end with such a note of unity and hope, incorporating some of the words of the Beatles’ song so beautifully into the poem’s flow of meaning:

            Don’t you know that it’s just you,
            hey Jude, you’ll do, and we do know,
            we feel it, we punch each key word
            to drive it home, into our heart,
            then we can start to make it better.    

The last line is, of course, a line in the Beatles’ song, but by not having it in italics, it feels as if the teacher is saying that the sentiment of this song is being “driven home,” into these students’ and the teacher’s hearts at one and the same time, to become a part of them, and that this connecting to other human beings through language, through song, can begin to make this a better world. I believe her.

Karen Craigo’s Passing Through Humansville is threaded with tenderness and reverence, vulnerability and honesty. These poems sing with intimacy, and a powerful voice of gratitude and hope about all the ways we connect in our experiences as human beings. The moments this poet creates, the ways she speaks to the reader, will nourish you at every turn.


Here are links to some of Karen Craigo’s poems:


Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, enjoys photography and visiting forests, museums, cemeteries, historic towns, and bodies of water. She is author of five chapbooks, most recently the collaborative ekphrastic Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and two poetry collections from Dos Madres Press: Swim Your Way Back  (2014) and A Map and One Year (2018). You can find her work in The Ekphrastic Review, Sliver of Stone, Heron Tree, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints