How Light Comes Up Off the Lake: a review of Old Snow, White Sun by Caroline Goodwin

Reviewed by Peter Mladinic

Old Snow, White Sun
by Caroline Goodwin
Jackleg Press
Nov 2021, Paperback, 90 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1737330783

When we stop writing about what’s on our mind and start writing about what’s not on our mind, that’s when the writing gets interesting.  That’s one idea, and it seems relevant here. The poems in Old Snow, White Sun come from the depths of the poet. Not at all self conscious, these poems are quite deliberate, the made thing. Each has its note of authority, as in the first poem’s first image, “the common loon made a thumbprint on the lake.” Part elegy, part journal, part memoir, part love song, part accusation, part celebration, all in the voice a person with something to say, a poet with the ability to make a word—loon, cattails, meadow—all her own. She she’s lived these words: paintbrush, White Rock, grebes, to name a few.

In the middle of the book the poet mentions Theodore Roethke, who, in his poem “The Waking” says “We think by feeling..”. In Old Snow, White Sun to feel is to know. Knowing occurs on different levels: awareness of, concern for people, places, and things human-made and natural. The book is comprised of three sections: Oriar, pertaining to song; Mothlight, pertaining to film; and Epiphytic, pertaining to nature, specifically to plant life. Another quote from “The Waking” is “God bless the ground..”  Interestingly all three sections involve the five senses. 

“Antiphony” begins “The deeper the knowledge, the greater the mystery.”  Like love, death is a mystery.  The poem that begins the collection “In A Time of Mourning,” is an elegy in six parts that begins with a memory. In part i, and throughout the poem the poet addresses her friend, the person who has departed from this world.  One device that makes clear their togetherness in part i is repetition with variation: “I was still awake.  I was awake for you.  And the light grew stronger, a pair of swans.  I was awake for you, for a very thin covering of now.  I was awake and we walked.”  That they were together in near a lake is clear, and that word itself lake is repeated.  The images between the repeated phrases reinforce where the two people were.  Death is a mystery, and the speaker’s grief, and anger are indicated at the end of part ii: “Fuck sake!  Iron, matchstick, creosote, rip-rap..”  In part vi, her regret, and bewilderment are clear:  “If I’d believed this could happen, I would have/ found a way” and, further down, “What/ if I said I love you?”  What if.  And what comes through is her heartfelt sense loss.  

Some poems have the feel of a journal in that the poet talks simultaneously to her readers and to herself, speaking/writing to know, to understand, to discover.  In part 3 of “Not, I’ll Not” there is questioning: “Be heron, be oblivion.  Where you at?  If I push/ the wheel: suffering.  If speak the dreams/ of others (others)”..further down : “Will you come to me then, blue skull, be me.”  Each part of this poem consists of six unrhymed couplets, a form well suited to the rhythms and images such as “At YouTube headquarters,/ the shooter came out on her knees,”

a public image in private introspective poem that takes its readers in, includes us.  She says at the end “I am the pasture and sedge, turning/ and turning under the fences, light.” “Antiphony,” with its stichic organization, is in the same vein, with the journalistic feel of writing in order to know, in order to discover.  In part i:  “You understand/ that wayfaring sleeper in the doorway.  The manner in which/ a helping hand arrives (four-legged or winged.”  This poet seems the person who stops writing about what’s on her mind and continues writing, and the result is a made thing, exacting, deliberate as “the wayfaring sleeper” and “turning under the fences.”  In part iv  after the startling litany of : “halfway/ house and railroad and chunks of seafoam and one or another glass bead” she says “What I believe/ love can erase, or replace: I line it all up/ on the sill.  Come along now, old friend/ We’re almost there.”  This writing needs no comment, speaks for itself, and the reader’s “soul steps back in wonder.”  Come along, and we do.   

How the poet beckons to us, takes us in, and keeps us in her presence is no mystery.  She does it through her craft.  Just as epiphytic has to do with plants above ground supporting each other, the poet’s devices are all parts of one whole—the poem.  Here are a few of them:  synesthesia, “your voice the color of crow feathers” and “I came into the world looking..for the smell of fur;” metaphor, “your voice a tough stem,” “I am the pasture,” “she is the button jar, the junk drawer;” phrasing, “the wind was swift-footed,” “What a funny little/ tribe, don’t you think?” zeugma, “streetlamp and bluefin,” “the sky’s a glowing silver and my dread,” and “pitchforks and euphoria.”

There is deliberation, great care in word order in phrases such as “light in the cypress, the night in ceramics” and in “delicate skin of the upper arm/gold rim on the edge of the page.”  And in “The Mechanics” there is a chant in the repetition with variation: “in the smoke rolling down/ in the centipede..the iridescent/ sensation of all its legs/ in the tent pitched in a bright meadow.”  Really fine stuff we’re hearing and seeing.  Poetry is subjective, all readers are individuals; that said, here’s a particularly arresting image, from part v of “The Lacnunga.”  “you are alone at the Laramie Circle K   you are/ holding the gas nozzle the sky is wide you are afraid  what/ happened here.”  Others:  “a long June sunset over a northern lake,”  “the muddiest end of the marsh,” “at the back of the house the pallets, the rusty nails,” “a family of ducks,”  “the hunter waits..rifle on his thighs,” “he held my aunt down on the bed,” “an infant’s body in the Ganges. A white sun,” and lastly “the faraway trilling, the scent of Iris,” this last image from the last page in the book.  

Another device is exposition, which has the effect of being inserts of prose into the poetry, and adds to the depth and breath of “I’m Happy to Collaborate with The Artist(s).”  Exposition begins this poem.  “The Number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2012 was 6,488.”  And exposition ends the poem.  “The number of American women who were murdered by current or ex male partners between 2001 and 2012 was 11, 766.”  Arresting, disturbing, powerful in this poem that includes “The Hermit Thrush is certainly one of the most beautiful songsters to inhabit Bay Area woodlands and forest floors.”  Informative, and celebratory, very much so in the last poem “Epiphytic.”  At its end the poet says, 

chrysanthemum    varied thrush
   white-crowned sparrow
march hen or swift
   or the violet-green swallow
standing the spring
   offering the taste
       in store for us.  

The body of contemporary American poetry is richer for Old Snow, White Sun.  To read it is to be taken on a journey, rich in sights and sounds.  Old Snow, White Sun informs, unsettles, eases and delights.  To read it is to be rewarded.   

About the reviewer: Peter Mladinic’s poems have recently appeared in Divot, Mad Swirl, Bluepepper, Off Course and other literary journals. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico, USA.