Reviewed by Karen Corinne Herceg
by Donna Reis
November 11, 2022, Paperback, 74 pages, ISBN-13: 979-8986505213
Death and disappointment can be called life’s great equalizers. No amount of money, privilege, or cryogenics has yet found a way to exempt any of us. Grief spares no one, even in our best attempts at denial. It has arguably the most profound impact on our journey through life in everything from the smallest disappointment to larger tragedies and into death. No matter your perspective on life or religious beliefs, there is a universal depth of feeling that cannot be denied when we are faced with the hard truth of loss. The question remains: what do we do with it?
Donna Reis knows a lot about loss. She’s known it since childhood. She’s known it when a horrific car accident at the age of seventeen left her disabled and struggling for years to recover the semblance of a normal life. She’s known it through failed relationships, an abusive marriage, and finally in the loss of a long-awaited life partner, a husband who passed from cancer several years ago, taken all too soon. But she’s spun gold from the threads of despair, just as she works so adeptly and laboriously over her needlepoint, and certainly as she’s done in her poetry, weaving her thoughts into the fabric of our consciousness.
In her new book of poems, Torohill, Reis revisits her past in a very human way that is intensely reflective, sometimes brutally stark, and often quite humorous. If comedy is just the other face of tragedy, then our catharsis lies within the synthesis of both. Reis knows this instinctively and expertly weaves both through her poems. It renders them remarkably touching but not in a saccharin or intentional manner. She allows feelings to vacillate and often startle and surprise us organically and authentically. A life of such challenges and loss might create a poetic style that holds the emotions apart, examining them from the safety of distance, the perspective of an observer. But Reis participates and dives into the feelings and what she uncovers is a landscape of multi-faceted responses to death and tragedy: irony, humor, the savory sweetness of memories, all weaving our stories toward what is inevitable but with comfort in the real, in the truth, and the shared connectedness of our journeys. No matter their diversity and deviations, there is a similitude and combined solace in our unavoidable finales. We join hands in communion with the unavoidable destiny of finality. Reis’ poems convey integral parts of our emotional journey through life’s predicaments, and an honest response to navigating the precarious nature of it all. She recognizes that our best defense is always the creative impulse that outlives physical limitations and memorializes our spirit’s eternal imprint.
Torohill is the name of the ancestral home of Reis’ late husband, Tom. Ironically, the hit and run car accident that took such a physical and mental toll on Reis occurred on the road at the bottom of that same property when she was just seventeen and still in high school. She wouldn’t meet Tom until several decades later, and it would challenge her psychologically to return to the scene of such a horrific memory, but it would be under much happier and life sustaining circumstances. There is an almost magical, fairy tale quality to the story, except she will sit alone in the house after Tom’s passing and eventually leave it.
The opening poem, “Shoes,” reflects upon the many shoes found on the ocean floor from the sinking of the Titanic, that grand ship to be the greatest to ever sail, yet had only one disastrous, aborted voyage. Like items on view in Holocaust camps and museums, they represent at once many individual lives resting together that touch us with both their specificity and collective humanity. Reis concludes how they’ve never really left: “row after row, so still/still there.” If we were here, we were never gone, living inside one another in experiences, in memories, in life, and even in death. In “Answering Machine” the theme returns of items that remain after someone has passed, even the voice of Reis’ husband in the recorded phone message:
Sometimes I’m jealousyou went first, as I tieyour loose ends,dust your collectionsand preserve your voicefor anyone who calls.
In “Mexican Standoff” we learn Reis and her father, a pastor, were abandoned by her mother. Her father follows her mother to Mexico but is unsuccessful in bringing her back. Instead, he returns with a dress her mother sent, a poor replacement. Reis feels she will betray her father by wearing it but decides to wear it for her graduation from high school. Elaborately embroidered with flowers, ribbons, and two love birds, she is driven to the ceremony in an ambulance and a wheelchair as she continues to recover from the accident. The dress is slipped over her “sutured belly/fractured pelvis and casted legs, like Disney birds/dressing Cinderella” in an amazing contrast between a celebration and an incredibly challenging day. She concludes the image: “Two plaster feet peered/from the dress’s hem like white doves/legs elevated like wings.” The recurrent theme of Reis rising to meet adversity is evident in her choice of words such as “elevated” and “wings,” a persistent will to survive.
The absence of maternal love and support are starkly evident in “How Do You Like Them Apples,” with a mother who spews platitudes that are meant to hurt, where “Compliments were doled out/when Hell froze over.” In “My Father Invents An Alternate Life” she imagines what he would have hoped for in a wife, a supportive one with “pies cooling in the larder,” who would “embroider cushioned kneelers/with Ecclesiastical petit point, a labor/of the finest love I could imagine.” That mother and wife did not exist, but Reis knows this and explores it. She often returns to the theme of needlepoint and stitching, metaphorically speaking to our desire to bind together, to hold together, despite what tears us apart. She visits this again in “Festival of Broken Needles” after the passing of her beloved husband. She stitches to piece together what is lost, to “sew them back together/as if they never parted.” She meets grief head on but is not immune to the lure and comfort of magical thinking. She balances this against the realization of hard facts. In “God’s Shepherd,” about her dying father, he sees that “he was already one/of many sheep crossing the plank/to a ship about to sail,” as she returns to face stark realities.
In “Please Forward” Reis thinks back on her “last summer of innocence” before her body is marred by the accident and life changed forever both personally and in the wake of political and societal shifts dispelling the carefree illusions of youth. Her humor shines through in “Learning to Sail,” in which she misunderstands a word in class that changes her perception and leads to a litany of misperceptions we can all relate to, then delivers a punch in a final line: “And once I said hate when I meant love.” Reis will experience a host of misjudged and misguided relationships in her search for love and connection and never shies from naming names and places that bring a very personal yet universal imperative to her poems. She dreams of boyfriends and romanticizes “walking the moors, like Plath and Hughes” or meeting “in our secret/garden among ghostly irises” but also admits to the dark side of our dueling thoughts. In “Amber Bottles” she longs to be out and walking while recovering with “leg elevated for three years,” and later laments wanting that time back to read and rest, finally deciding her muse is drawn to “amber bottles, and a stranger/in the corner with a crooked smile.” Reis is always searching for that special connection but also recognizes the contradictions we face within ourselves, the wounds we carry that can easily distort the outcomes. “Botched Job” describes a dysfunctional marriage, a husband who tries to commit suicide, and her recognition that the relationship is over and “we were one breath from death.” Reis fights to live despite the tragedies and challenges. The dark side calls to her often in her thoughts or through others, but her refrain is “Not yet, not yet” as in these last lines from “The Reverend’s Irreverent Daughter.” The title of this poem aptly describes Reis, her rebellious spirit, her unwillingness to relent to misfortune, her desire to embrace life and hope. In her homage to poet John Berryman, she relates to his despair and early death, but that resignation does not live in Reis. She notes that had he lived and wrote longer, at this point in time he would have been dead anyway. We will all die, and here Reis tells us that hastening that moment is wrong and speaks to Berryman stating, “Your throat still had songs stirring/down deep.” Her life force is too strong and is not about giving up or giving in. In “Purgatory” she describes everyone’s present moment as one of loss through fear and imaginary thinking that remind us we live more by diminishment than expansion: “Most believe if they step off the ledge,/they’ll plummet to Hell.”
Reis returns to the scene of her horrific accident when she marries Tom who lives in his ancestral home, Torohill. Ironically it is at the bottom of Torohill where the accident occurred thirty-one years prior. Despite her fears, she faces them and comes full circle in this new home and, finally, with a true love, sharing in the inheritance of the house’s history. Her “Letter to Jane Kenyon” parallels Kenyon’s joining poet Donald Hall at his home and making it her own as well. An assimilation takes place based on a shared love that overcomes apprehension of moving into someone else’s settled landscape. When Reis states, “Yet as I ascend, passing the old scene/I resurrected from to marry and live above,” she decides to move forward, to “realize I’ve come home.” The faith in her decision is evident in her choice of words such as “ascend,” “resurrected,” and “above.” These are words of triumph over tragedy, of life over death. “Grey Rock, Squirrel Island” presents us with another perspective on the meaning of houses and home. Reis and her husband pay a visit to his cousin’s home rife with antiques and nostalgic memorabilia, and Reis takes a bath sinking “into a claw-foot tub with a glass of wine to drink in the sunset.” Shortly they receive a visit from the caretaker who advises them they are in the wrong house. It’s a humorous moment, but the underlying message is that the people make the home.
“The Last Night” is a heart wrenching goodbye as Reis lies with her husband, curled into him with her back against him. She wants to turn but can’t. She concludes with “When I awoke/he was gone.” This short piece perfectly captures the conflict of denial and acceptance. In “Miracle Whip & Woolite” she writes of going to the lawyer’s office for probate. Little nuances and remembrances constantly trigger grief because they’re so personal and specific. She realizes she will have to ask someone else’s help to open a bottle of Woolite “because you won’t be here to help me.” Finality sets in with “You will never, ever be here again.” Later in “Orientation,” Tom appears to her two days after his death. Their “eyes locked and we/were too far away to speak.” There’s a sad triumph in this moment, of connection beyond time, but still “too far away.”
The poems of loss morph back and forth as memories stir pleadings to “Come home, Baby. I have a place/set just for you.” In “You’ve Left” there is more resignation as she visits the grave and says, “I’m certain/you’ve left, seeing only parched/grass and a marker.” But in “Great Horned Owls,” which concludes the collection, she elevates his status in her life and memories and states, “You always knew/death would swoop in on grey wings/and carry you to the highest tree.” In this collection, Reis rises to that place in “the highest tree” both in creativity and in spirit. At the beginning of Torohill Reis quotes Rilke. It sums up all we have and all we must do:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.Just keep going. No feeling is final.Don’t let yourself lose me.Nearby is the country they call life.You will know it by its seriousness.Give me your hand.
In these poems Reis extends her hand, and we won’t be disappointed if we take it.
You can find the book here: https://www.deerbrookeditions.com/torohill/
Review first published at North of Oxford
About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, essays, and reviews. Her second book of poetry, Out From Calaboose, was released in 2017. A graduate of Columbia University, she has studied and read with notable poets Philip Schultz, John Ashbery and William Packard. She lives in France. Her website is http://www.karencorinneherceg.com