Before the Monsoon (review)

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Before the Monsoon 
Written by Eleanor Dart
Reviewed by Natalie Ramsland

In the author statement that concludes Eleanor Dart’s latest book of poems, Before the Monsoon, Dart writes, “I don’t want to leave my writing buried in filing cabinets when I depart this life. Hence, this book.” I imagine her poems being rescued from papery depths, freed from the ponderous weight of file folders and metal drawers. Perhaps these poems once lived among tax statements, instruction manuals, love letters, but in this volume, they live together without any trace of compression or randomness.

To the contrary, Dart’s poems create and describe a vast emotional range. They draw on images, memories, and observations spanning decades, continents, and marriages.  Even so, the poems remain in conversation with one another, repeating images and colors and metaphors in ways that are honest and fresh.

For example, in “For Mr. Dedman Who Taught American Literature: South Eugene High School, 1964,” Dart recalls a teacher who broke down in front of the class while reading aloud to the students about Gettysburg, after he had lost his own son in Vietnam. Dart recalls how she and the other kids “snickered and shifted / inside their secret armor.” From the perspective of many years later, Dart reflects, “Now I think the thin-skinned are / Like canaries in our own darkness . . . ” This allusion to the “canary in the coal mine” speaks not only of the fragility of life, but also of betrayals by the hard-hearted.

In “Thom’s Blue Volvo,” Dart offers another image of the canary. This time, however, the canary celebrates a subversive liberation. This poem laments the thankless errand of dealing with Dart’s ex-husband’s impounded car. She writes

. . . and I go down there
Monday through Friday, between 10 and 4,
behind clanking wire fences and take my
canary yellow thermos out of the back seat.
And walk away.
This canary has sprung its cage, and I can’t help but cheer her on.

If you already know that you love poetry, I trust you will find deep satisfaction in Before the Monsoon. However, if you have made it this far into a poetry review as someone who doesn’t think they are a poetry reader, I’ll share a confession. Me neither. And to you, I devote the rest of this review.

Aware of my poetry-shyness, I first approached this book looking to make a formal acquaintance. I scanned the table of contents looking for some organizational context. Dart divides this book into three sections, “Opposable Thumbs,” “Towers,” and “Deep Ocean.” Upon my first reading, I appreciated that the poems collected therein loosely correspond to themes of Origins, Growth, and That Which Points Toward Mystery.

While this seemed vaguely helpful, I was still concerned that I wouldn’t sufficiently grasp and share the meaning and the loveliness in this book. I toted it around on buses and into waiting rooms and coffee shops, underlining phrases and jotting notes in the margins. But by the second reading, with all of “That Which Points Toward Mystery” still working on me, I put my pencil down, I sat in my comfiest chair, and I simply read.

I welcomed the collection of poems like a motley, tender assortment of souls at a gathered meeting for worship. I want you to do the same. Sit in silence with them. Let them open up and open you up. Some of the voices will rise as if they were meant for you alone to hear.

For me, last week, it was “Cup of Hope” that spoke to me directly. It begins, “Each morning her life is saved / by a single cup of coffee,” and it ends:

Cream curls into her darkness
She gives herself this much,
has decided against all odds
that she deserves it,
this morning cup,
that pins her to the planet
one more day.

Other poems seem to give voice to – and sometimes respond to – queries that resonate deeply in me. For example, the poem “Endangered Species” begins with the lines, “Fly into life / You too are an / Endangered species.” Then it unfolds in language of connection, imperfect details, and the profound sufficiency of what is right before us.

In this spirit, Eleanor Dart’s Before the Monsoon isn’t just a rich collection of poems liberated from filing cabinets. It is an expression of a life of written ministry, humbly and generously offered.  ~~~

– Natalie Ramsland attends Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).

To purchase a copy of Before the Monsoon, contact Eleanor Dart at egendart-AT-gmail-DOT-com or at P.O. Box 16084, Tucson, AZ, 85732.