Reviewed by Charles Butterfield
Reading Distler’s collection of short lyrics is like poring over unmatted, unframed watercolor sketches. One suspects the poet knows a thing or two about painting when, in the poem “Duck Harbor,” we read, “We’re greedy too—he for wind and sea;/me, the colors and shapes/ of a day at the beach.” Each Distler poem is a picture on the surface, yet the pigment seeps deep and the images float beyond the margins.
Take the opening poem, for instance. “Centering” shows companions walking with just their fingertips interlaced. Then as happens in watercolors, the details run, and the fingers become a potter’s palms centering her clay before shaping a vessel “that will be filled/ and used to fill.” Is companionship not like a vessel that holds and yields?
Anyway, that is how I experience the artistry of a Distler poem, whatever its subject—watching a diminishing, long-time companion “find his way/ back to water,” studying the skeleton of a bird “placed delicately/ as brooch or pendant/ in the shoebox,” “the little barbarism” of bating a fishhook, visiting the meager remains of a cherished house under a sky, “as usual/brooding and hallowed,” or viewing a girlhood photograph, remnant of “the life that didn’t take.”
A repeating motif in Distler’s chapbook is the arc, the figure that reaches out and then begins to return. Sometimes the figure is implied, as in “The Fish Counter.” Here the counting of wild fish climbing a dam transforms to their place in a meal “as if taking in/ the completeness of fish/ were a rite of return.” In another poem, a spell of deep grieving is broken by “one summer evening/breeze’s brazen kiss,” and the griever “ached/ to begin again.” In a poem touting the merits of wildflowers over cultivated mums, the arc is explicit in the “stripped-down lily’s/ arcs of green/ turned shadowy wisps.”
In “Chrysalis,” we observe with the poet the emergence of a monarch butterfly as it’s caterpillar “finds/ its winged door.” Here , in addition to the implied return, is the sense of open possibility that marks many of these poems and that I liken to paintings without frames. The chrysalis opens, the butterfly emerges, and of course we hope it finds its way to continuing the life cycle.
This sense of possibility, even hope, that marks Distler’s lyric poetry comes again in the poem that gives this collection its title. After attending a retreat at the Weston Priory and listening to the Brothers sing, “their voices like wind chimes,” the poet drives home behind a flatbed truck hauling a pair of snowmobiles. In the poet’s inspired state, mindful of the Brothers ‘ faith, she sees that the machines are “riding into the wind, pointed to a destination,/ though in fact/ they were being carried.”
Arlene Distler, co-founder of Write Action and editor of its anthologies, is an advocate for the literary arts in the region. This book, her first, makes an inspired contribution to that effort.
The poet will read from “Voices Like Wind Chimes,” during Gallery Walk, Friday, July 11, 7:30 p.m., at the Twilight Tea Lounge, 41 Main Street (lower level), Brattleboro. She will be joined in the reading by poet/painter Terry Hauptman.
“Voices Like Wind Chimes” is available at Everyone’s Books, and on line at Amazon.com and finishinglinepress.com.
Charles Butterfield’s recent publications are “Field Notes” (poems) and “In the Shadow of Cedars” (biography). He lives in Hinsdale, NH.
“Distler’s parallax vision reveals both the visceral and emotional interiors of her subject matter, especially as it evanesces before her, whether it be an octopus getting cleaned or those she has loved and lost. These are moving lyrical poems that transcend mere experience with a distilled wisdom that’s resonates with spontaneous freshness.”
Chard deNiord, most recently author of Night Mowing, and The Double Truth, Associate professor of English at Providence College and founder of the New England College MFA poetry program.
“Arlene Distler’s poems are original, perceptive; songs of the water and the hum of the earth, deeply observed. Distler’s lifegiving poems inspire our becoming –– these poems of passion birthed on the precipice of joy and pain. She dazzles in the painted winds of transformation evoking empathy’s root and source with her world vision.”
Terry Hauptman, Poet/Painter Author of On Hearing Thunder, and Rattle
“A superb collection of poems – each finely crafted, full of life and fresh language. Vermont’s cold streams and the broken projects of youthful farms, Afghan women in Burkas, lentils on the stove, fish counters and fish mongers, sunlight, and loss inhabit these poems, unburdened by emotional baggage but filled, rather, with insight and compassion. I suggest sitting down and reading this collection as one piece – and then come back over time to savor morsels.”
Kate Gleason, author of Measuring the Dark (Zone 3 Press) and director of Writers Submit, a literary submitting and editing service