“Four-Alarm House: Poems” by Carolyn Gelland; Main Street Rag Publishing Co., Charlotte, N.C, 2012; 54 pages, trade paperback, $8.
Carolyn Gelland’s new collection, “Four-Alarm House,” has a powerful sense of pith. Her approach to poetry is characterized by terseness of language, sharpness of imagery, and persistent hints of the metaphysical.
The whole of “High Flake” goes to the gist of the matter:
The white crane,
in the snowflakes,
dreams its way
to a sunset
above the light.
The picture and language here are almost Asian in their terse clarity, and the “sunset / above the light” is straining toward the intuition of a larger, possibly cosmic element. While most of the poems in “Four-Alarm House” are longer than this one, with longer lines and more various rhythmic shapes, this poem’s hard edges echo certain edges of H.D., whose poems helped pioneer the effects of terseness in modernism and who could be a predecessor of these writings.
One hundred or so years after H.D., there is also, probably inevitably, a sort of postmodern sense of cultural history here, tied into intimately personal feelings. A number of poems are titled after, or refer to figures such as Osip Mandelstam (20th century Russian poet who got in trouble with Stalin); Cardinal Wolsey (Catholic cardinal who got in trouble with Henry VIII); Friedrich Holderlin (18th century German poet); Vermeer, Cezanne and Munch (painters); and most personally, a couple of short pieces on Willem de Kooning that suggest a firsthand knowledge of the painter.
The poems themselves in some passages parallel the expressionist lines of de Kooning or Munch (“The Chair Drew Back, / screamed, / kept on screaming”), and in others are concretely instructive, as in “Gravamina”:
When a woman dreams of someone
who will know her,
she may be known by someone
other than she dreamt.
In other words there is always, it seems, something essential at work above the light, or underneath it, in these poems.
Carolyn Gelland lives in Wilton and is active on Maine’s poetry circuits, giving readings of her own works and those of her late husband, Kenneth Frost, in many venues. She will participate in a tribute to Brunswick poet Herb Coursen at the University of Maine at Augusta’s 10th annual Terry Plunkett Maine Poetry Festival on April 13 and in the Bangor Public Library’s Poets/Speak! event April 18, and will be reading at the Portland Public Library on April 27.