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.