Quatrefoil by CB Follett,
Many Voices Press 2016, 158 pp., $18.00 paper.
Review by Joseph Zaccardi
“We are alike and yet not,” CB Follett tells us, and so begins “Tree Music,” this first act of Quatrefoil, as poem after poem unravels the language of trees. The poems are indeed a symphony of adagio and allegro, where the “tops of trees swing / to old rhythms in the open mouths / of winds from the north,” and also are exuberant with their “blizzard of petals.”
Through their reliance on image, sound and everyday language, most successful poems deal with life more viscerally than scientific journals and the daily newscasts’ hyperbole. As this poet-speaker intimately considers how flora and fauna relate to the human experience, she lays bare how humans overwhelm vast landscapes with upheavals and thoughtless development, and with reckless clear-cutting, also known as slash-and-burn. After addressing the tension of mankind’s intrusions on ecosystems, Follett weaves a tapestry of vegetable and animal life, imbuing them with soul and consciousness, as in the poem, “The Loving of Trees”: “They ask nothing of me / stand noble as kings along the ridge / branches touching or not / birds coming or not // I love them for their stance / and for never forgetting / to reach upward.”
Using her poetic paintbrush, and hewing a delicate line between the tangles of the ordinary and shady branches of the transcendent, Follett argues and cajoles. She composes music and art — these poems swirl and swing, move forward and backward between form and freeform. Her beautiful word parings release their melody the way perfume in a bottle goes unnoticed until atomized; her lineation is both fruitful and mischievous.
Poetry is the most varied and complex of arts. Like music, poetry has scales, counterpoints, and harmony, and like a painting it is portraiture and abstract, collage and cubist. And because it acts out lives and histories, tragedies and triumphs, it is like a play, which is why I name each section of Quatrefoil an act. “Congregation,” act 2 if you will, is a gathering, a place of meeting in a town square. Follett has brought together poems such as “A Kettle of Vultures,” “A Scold of Blue Jays,” and “A Skulk of Foxes,” and other animals in the animal kingdom. In a wonderful twist the poem “A Murder of Crows,” compares Catholic priests to opportunistic predators, as in these lines: “Six priests in the service / of God, touching boys / who can never be untouched.” And in the poem “A Cloud of Bats,” Follett writes “Naughty boys… throw a cherry bomb into a bat cave.” Again an indictment of humanity for its callous treatment of living beings as she demonstrates how all life can feel pain; this essential knowledge is imputed in her poems and important to our own survival.
Follett mingles the homely with the beautiful; her poems are often prayer-like in the way they capture us with their subtle and striking effects. Early on in her poems we feel her strong environmental foundation and her passionate narrative voice; both attributes weave a unity of humor and reflection, memory and myth. Images from one poem reappear later in others, threading together through conversation and intimacy.
At this mid-point I’d like to offer my view of the book’s cover design and of the art, consisting of CB Follett’s photographs; they are a collage set against a background of gray morphing into muted blue; there are trees at the bottom in a landscape awash in the gray of waiting; and in the upper half are four photographic panels: the trunks of aspens in Bryce Canyon, a crow perched on a willow in winter, a Flat-Coated Retriever named Koda, and red rock hoodoos in Southern Utah, all under the marquee-like title Quatrefoil, the subterranean heart of this collection. As the title suggests, the poet connects the ordinary with the extraordinary, a place for the common good and common sense, she brings together in true quatrefoil symbiosis an architecturally ornamental design of four lobes resembling a flower or a four-leaf clover. One could think of this collection of poetry as a point where emotions and symbols coalesce.
Now on to act 3, “Island Made of Bones,” which brings to this poet’s stage some lighthearted poems: “The Language of Shoes” speaks to the relationship between a man and his dog, the decisions the master makes — will he pick the black shiny shoes, that leave the house without the dog, who thinks “These shoes are unworthy,” “Or the man might choose / the stay-at-home-shoes. / At home is good news,” but the best shoes, the ones hoped for are the shoes that “…lead to jacket and leash. / These are the shoes of happiness. / woof.” There are many such delicious poems at the start and end of this section. In the middle “The Nine Circles of Cerberus,” comprised of nine scenes, is the lynchpin of this section; here the poet digs deeper, employing the three-headed hound of Hades who guards the gates of the underworld, preventing the dead from leaving. Follett humanizes this beast, who asks in one poem, is it too much to want a kind word, a rub behind the ears to make the endless bearable. Cerberus laments and makes light of his situation asking if this is any better than those who come here saying, I don’t deserve this? Cerberus, is “…trapped / just like the others,” but a least he has three fabulous spiky collars, his favorite possessions, his only possessions.
In the final act, “Poems for Red Canyons,” with a theme as vast as loss, Follett links geological events with the talk of a coyote, which evokes a fantastical language trip: “…this is a land of sky, water / and wind. A land where the elements clean out // the weaker stone, leaving columns and spires,” to the coyote’s song, “I sing to the moon — some signal of my Hereness.” And then CB Follett brings out her paintbrush once again with flourish and force as she writes in the poem “Paint Pots,” “In an oasis of green, I pull a peach / from a nearby tree and take a bite.” I would like to add one of my favorite quotes, in this vein, from the Tang Dynasty poet Li Po, “In every good poem a peach is mentioned.” Brava! I say to this poet and artist, you have brought to life a splendid book of poetry. Your poems look out at the world, they are trained at the soul, they are pastoral and intellectual, they bristle and praise — they are sublime.
First published in Poet’s West 2016
Copyright ©2016 Joseph Zaccardi