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Not To: New and Selected Poems by Elaine Terranova

Katie Haegele [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

Like the process of becoming experienced, these poems ask us to pay attention.

Not To: New and Selected Poems

Publisher: Sheep Meadow Press
Length: 176
Formats: Paperback
Price: $14.95
Author: Elaine Terranova
US publication date: 2006-04
UK publication date: 2006-08

Elaine Terranova, winner of the Walt Whitman Award and other honors, has a new collection of poems called Not To. During the few weeks that I carried it around with me -- physically and metaphorically -- the phrase that kept echoing in my head was "Because They Wanted To," which is the title of Mary Gaitskill's 1997 collection of unsparing short stories. The association was accidental but the comparison, upon consideration, is at least a little bit apt. The poems in this collection, like Gaitskill's stories, tread bravely across the minefield of the everyday; they dig down and explore the inside-out vastness of life's small and sometimes treacherous moments.

That said, Terranova's title is a carefully chosen pair of words, and the book, which includes new poems as well as selections from her other four collections, is broken into sections with titles that play with those words: "Not Two," "Knot Two," "Not Too," and "Noto." Most of the poems of "Knot Two," for instance, explore romantic love, which was a delightful discovery. After all, what is poetry if it's not alive to wordplay and nuances of meaning?

Not To is a strong collection in part because of the sheer range of emotion it covers. Terranova has been publishing for 26 years or so, and these truly are songs of experience. Like the process of becoming experienced, these poems ask us to pay attention. When we do, we're rewarded with the discovery of confident little truths nestled into the dense stuff of their surroundings, like rings in their velvet-lined boxes.

Some poems -- such as "Mint," with its description of a pained day - are tiny domestic depictions, like dollhouse miniatures. Others are pastorals, like "Sheep," with its sheep who want to be "counted or blessed" by the people who visit them. Still others are about the place where civilization and wilderness meet, moments when people see themselves reflected in the natural world. Take the cardinal in "The Cardinal," who keeps banging his head against the window. He's probably only cracking seeds for food, but from within her fraught family sphere the speaker confesses: "My own idea / about the cardinal is, / he's fighting for his life. / He sees an enemy, not just / that pale reflection in the glass."

Terranova finds different ways of telling us these things. Sometimes it's an image so apt it rejiggers the way we see things, if only for a minute. In "Dinner at the Holiday Inn," the speaker, haunted by modernity, sees her own face reflected in the darkened window "like a ghost in a jar." Indeed, poems throughout the collection are peppered with surprising metaphors; my favorites are the ones that use language itself as a stand-in for something else. For instance, in "Break" we learn that "the break in a bone, simple or compound" is "like a reckless sentence." In "Carina," Terranova captures the queasy feeling of a very young woman's vulnerability in the world, telling us that the girl's name, Carina, "could be a cognate of careening." As Terranova writes so vividly, "Things walk in the halls / of a word." Oh, they do.

Of the selected older work, the poems from 1991's The Cult of the Right Hand are especially strong. This is where Terranova reports the ways that things can "become something different. Here, family scenes and their players take on the largeness of myths, and the rules of religious observance turn tasks like lighting the stove into sins.

It's a mistake to hunt for the "person behind the poems, but if you look you can find the poet. In one of my favorites of the new poems, "Sleeping Rats Dream of the Maze," Terranova plays with the idea of a psychological test, "a study of happiness and its effects." She describes a study in which one group of women was told to think of the best time in their lives while a second group thought of the worst before they all received flu shots. "No surprise who'd produce antibodies," Terranova writes. "Didn't the researchers know, / the way a novel is about something / besides what happens, people's lives / are about something else too?"

Terranova knows it, and that's what her poems are about -- the something else.

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