Words for Trees by Barbara Folkart
Reviewed by Jesse Ferguson, for Bywords.
Beach Holme Publishing. Trade paper 120 pp ISBN 0-88878-436-8 $13.95 CDN $9.95 US.
Folkart’s first book of poetry consists of many finely crafted and sensuous poems; the collection as a whole attests to the sensitivity and uncompromising linguistic control of a seasoned poet.
The book is comprised almost exclusively of free-verse, yet the poems are carefully controlled. Folkart’s diction is sophisticated, yet accessible, and unlike many poets who seem to judge a piece’s worth by its abstruseness, she espouses a more natural aesthetic, letting each poem dictate its own linguistic elevation. In “Flight into Egypt,” she writes of “the angry roil of mountains in the dusk, / the sea glaciered / into a heat death all its own.” In contrast with this lofty diction are such lines as “a nice warm fuck in a nice warm bed” (from “View from the Void”). Folkart is willing, when the situation demands it, to use everyday speech in all its bluntness.
The rare instances in which Folkart’s language fails occur in such poems as “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” when her alliteration draws too much attention to itself. Lines like “bondaged / to bare blue bark” are slightly distracting. Aside from two or three such instances, Folkart delivers poem after poem filled with well-turned phrases that often lead the reader to repeat lines in admiration.
For the most part, Folkart’s images are precise and simple. Except on rare occasions she resists the urge to belabor an image with superfluous adjectives or other types of lofty, imprecise language. Thus, in “A Sudden Cold,” the effect of an early frost is described precisely in the lines
they’ll be lunging to their knees,
the sunflowers, like the vertical
corpses in Sicilian catacombs
crumbling inside their Sunday-best.
Rarely does Folkart deliver a metaphor that does not bear scrutiny. One such rarity occurs in the poem “Sunday Morning in Fallowfield,” which closes on the lines “all morning the air boisters / through the big maples…. And underneath it all, eternity sieves grain by grain through the branches” (my emphasis). The poet, for the most part, avoids such terms as “eternity” and “infinity,” which are widely used by other poets, yet are difficult to employ in any fresh way.
Thematically, Folkart draws heavily upon the realms of visual art and music, with a special affinity for the French traditions. “Deux Déjeuners sur l’Herbe” plays on two paintings by French impressionist artists, employing the same softness of tone used by that school of art. Thankfully, however, Folkart’s poems are seldom as fuzzy and imprecise as the works of many impressionists. Thus, in the same poem, the female subject is described in precise terms as having “a plain and competent body— / stable, large-footed, with the big toe sticking out.” Folkart’s poetry reveals her deep love and understanding of many types of art; many of her best poems borrow from the languages of painting, music and even photography.
Above all, Words for Trees seeks to articulate the intense longings of the average human, longings that can be brought to the surface by even the most commonplace of occurrences. In “Clarinet Flesh,” the narrator remembers of a fellow musician, “it was Andy’s reedy grace / I wanted, his astringent / Slavic cheekbones, his pectorals.” In the poem “Id,” the speaker laments a disconnect with sexuality, saying,
for some, desire is the way back in:
… [but] my longing stands outside me, angel
of fire posted at the gates of me
to keep me out.
Often, Folkart projects the yearning of her personae onto trees, flowers or other elements of nature, but does so subtly, leaving the reader to put the pieces together.
In conclusion, Folkart’s poems bear the mark of an astute editor, of an uncompromising artist. One may wonder whether the poems are at times too crafted, too controlled, and that they might be more exciting if they contained more linguistic ‘wiggle room.’ The poems, however, are generally engaging both intellectually and emotionally. This collection is the perfect companion to a good bottle of French wine and one of Debussy’s préludes on a lazy summer evening.