Put Your Hand in Mine
Signature Press (2019)
Review by Rachael Ikins
Elaine Woo’s journey from young childhood to gray hair is told with a close connection to the natural world, even as it succumbs to environmental degradation. She is a relentless observer who gives the reader unique perspectives on such homely natural things as a cat stalking a bird, crows gathering, or, most significantly to her, the waves washing “the hem” of the beach. Even quotidian clothing, crafted by nature and by humans, takes on purpose for the speaker, from worn denim to winter boots and an embroidered tunic.
Despite the speaker’s sustained solitude, it is the odd poem about people–her friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer, her mentor who lost the vision in one eye, her mother, her father–that define the collection with snapshot-like clarity. From poem to poem, the experience of reading is akin to looking through an old diary or photo album, though not always a happy one. It is through her relationships with people we see her grow from an impressionable girl into a woman who owns herself and her life. Her female characters, such as her mentor, prove brave independent women no matter what challenges them. Meanwhile, her relationships with women bolster her own self-examination and willingness to accept her own flaws as she works to strengthen her sense of self.
This reviewer found the format of some poems distracting as the poet sought to put her words into motion across the page. For example, the arrangement of one line on the left margin, skipping two lines, and then settling in the right margin, in actuality seemed unnecessary: the language in these poems is strong enough on its own to convey the heartbeat of the seasonal cycles riding on the waves of the ocean in which the poet finds steadfast peace when in pain. However, other readers may enjoy having this enigmatic canvas to interpret from.
In the end, “Put Your Hand in Mind” reads as a complicated tension between despair and hope as well as a call for women to hold hands across their differences. The Amazon Rain Forest is burning. Rafts of plastic pollute the speaker’s beloved ocean. By 2030, humans may use up all of the earth’s ability to replenish topsoil and, hence, food. Where does one find hope in the face of such realities? Woo turns repeatedly to the beauty of nature for her inspiration. It is this we poets must remember, and through our writings, speak out and call each other to accountability.
Just Two Girls
Clare Songbirds Publishing House (2017)
Review by Elaine Woo
New York state poet Rachael Ikins takes the reader on an uneasy but riveting ride through the terrain of nonbinary relationships and loss in her poetry collection, Just Two Girls.
The poem from which the book’s title is derived, “Just Two Girls: For Lizbeth,” unravels the secret tale of a young woman living in “Student housing. Quirky rich kids. / Eccentrics and ghetto’s edge.” She slips by in low key garb, “Sweat pants, sneaks and a canvas bag. / No make up. Nobody suspects.” That is, nobody suspects her chosen profession is call girl: “I dance on a bar in the near west end / over by the zoo. Blue collar working men / red-necks, those college boys. I flaunt a big feather fan.” Ikins is a mistress of artful surprise, which flaunts itself through her poetry collection.
The title poem ends with grateful acknowledgment of a female friendship that sustains the call girl through vaginal removal of a cancer, a procedure that won’t mar her youthful skin, evidently so valuable an asset in her profession. Sustaining friendships of the sort, all women need, no matter their vocation. Meanwhile, her dear friend “tries to behave as if we are just two girls.”
However, others judgmentally question what their relationship really consists of. In “At the Farm Stand: Grandma W. Talks about a Customer with her Daughter-in-Law,” we hear a snippet of cruel conversation between Grandma and daughter-in-law: “Say, what d’you think them gals do up there in Dottie’s old place? I heared they’s lezbeens. It ain’t right, two women together…Is it now?” This is the paranoia, fearmongering and misunderstanding that nonbinary people commonly face. Ikins captures the spirit of gossipy country folk with choice dialogue: “Ain’t right. ‘Course two men together’s worse…I don’t like even to t’imagine. Bad enough I seen them yearlin’ bulls ever’ spring humpin’ til one gets dumped on its butt.”
While the acts of bulls are overt, the poet notices even the smallest creature’s desire. In “Full moon/Slapping at Mosquitoes September 2,” she views the mosquito’s proboscis as “Tiny female’s lips prick, sort through freckles, stray blonde skin hairs—anesthesia, lust for blood, a way in.” Through the many comparisons that in this volume are made between people and animals or nature, the speaker reveals the bewitching of her infatuation with both her girls and guys.
The anthropomorphizing of even inanimate objects may speak to a notion of humans as the center of the universe that is somewhat limiting. Nevertheless, Ikins’ narrator deftly uses this technique to capture the pain of the loss of her lover in “Butternut Squash.” As the speaker walks down a grocery store aisle, she observes, “Squash undoes me…I want to choose the right tanned form, sweetest of orange flesh.” Laden with double meaning, this reminds the reader as much as her of her lost lover. Ultimately, they remain separated by death: “We divide our braided life into shaggy hanks of silvery hair.”
The ending line of “Treasures,” “I am ready to know,” left me with knowledge that the many varied voices of squash, mosquito, bull, and call girl all have a knowing, a female knowing, even if misunderstood by mainstream society. Much for women to celebrate!
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