the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Fall 2011



Heart Turned Back
by Bertha Rogers

Heart Turned Back

Heart Turned Back
by Bertha Rogers

Salmon Poetry, 2010; 79 pages; $12.00
ISBN: 978-1-907056-26-0, paper

Reviewed by Melinda Thomsen

Like the beautifully rendered cover by the poet herself, Bertha Rogers' new collection of poetry is intricately visually blended as she searches for home. Indeed, home is where the heart is; but for Rogers, home is not a clichè, so in the poem "Blue Sky" we see a complex and provocative view of where it is:

A white bird
carrying his own light
hangs reasonably
in the sky, watches me
with one red eye.

I think
I will call this home.

From the beginning to the end of this book, poems emerge to answer this searching question, and the reader falls deeper and deeper into Rogers' unique perspective on the world. The collection is divided into three sections, moving from "The Green Sea" to "Like Night" and ending with "Landscape with Wings." These parts depict a journey that begins with observations on the poet's current surroundings; in order to understand them better, the poet returns to her memories of home. Then, in the third section, she uses these experiences to come to a richer understanding of life. The reader emerges the lucky beneficiary of all her living. In many ways, this collection is by a poet's poet. The beautifully rendered poems that open the book are as effortlessly done as the sestina "Place" at the close. Her range is startling.

"Buck," one of the poems in the first section, faces the reader with a situation in which the poet tries to make sense of her landscape:

… The buck swung
his wild grave head and broke; earth
thundered, dead stems shaking. I

followed but he traveled too far.
I turned and maundered below, along
the armored garden, its brocade of beets

and chard, rustling vines; into
the tame yellow eyes of the house.
The next night I tried again; laid

myself on the deer's own slope,
in the moon's steady beam; waking,
waking to the flawless circle…

Here the poet comes face to face with something so different from herself that it is unobtainable. She tries to follow the buck, but he eludes her; so she returns to what she does know. Meanwhile, the garden and the house morph into a mysterious place of pulsing life with moving vines and blank eyes of the house. The poet shows us life in places where we don't typically notice it; ironically, when the poet tries again to meet the buck, the living creature, the next evening, he doesn't return. But the poem ends with the poet surrounded with wind, rain-precursing, percussive wind. The poet wraps herself with the vitality of the buck through her specific depiction of the scene.

Through animals the poet offers observations that move the reader to a better understanding of not only the noble creatures, like the buck, but also the more ignoble ones, as in "Turkey Buzzard," and ultimately ourselves, for we are the ones who crane our necks towards the source of flashing lights and sirens. This blending of ugliness and beauty offers the reader deep satisfaction as "Turkey Buzzard" unfolds:

Unable to lie, the vulture points out the truth:
he descends to scavenge tread-deaths,
the fox's spoils. Discrete as an undertaker,
he swallows all but the bones.

After dining, he stands a moment,
staring into the open; stiffens his wings
around his torso like a penitent
fixing a hair shirt; then maneuvers
his earth-ugly bulk up away from his work.

In many ways, this poem makes me jealous in the originality and precision of its description. In just two stanzas, the poet paints a picture that is accurate in its carnality, but then moves to a physical description of the mannerisms of this bird that evokes a penitent fixing a hair shirt. For we know that the vulture is just being a vulture, but its behavior is quite Catholic, and perhaps even Protestant in its work ethic.

In this collection, the poet and the reader learn lessons from surroundings as in "Turkey Buzzard" and "Buck"; in "Rhomboid" the poet examines herself.

Was that where I learned momentum (I was
startled, once, to see myself in a city window, head
ahead of torso, diving into the noisy sidewalk);
was this the source of my rush to the end of things?

The picture of a person walking head first amuses but questions whether this physical movement actually is the reason for our behavior. Do we really think first and act second, or vice versa? The way the poet shifts perspective draws the reader fully into the poem as both poet and reader experience the moments together.

Rogers' collection is balanced with poems of observation. In "Out of a Dream," the poet invites the reader into her own inner dialogue. Here the poet doesn't observe the other but looks right at herself and, as in her author photo, the reader meets a poet with a playful smile and cheery eye.

Bodies on the bed; love cries,
ancient and ecstatic: if I weren't
wrapped in you, ringed by all your eyes,
I would laugh at our mingled
foolishness; this happiness
exploded out of absolute night.

All this joy has emerged from absolute night and, as with the red-eyed bird in the poem "Blue Sky," the poet finds a home in the unexpected and fleeting. "Out of a Dream" ends with Love, I accept these waking inversions. These wise poems delight the reader from beginning to end, being endlessly fascinating in both their craft and their unique voice.

Melinda Thomsen's poetry and book reviews have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as Poetry East, Big City Lit, New York Quarterly, Home Planet News, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Alimentum, Heliotrope, and The Same. Anthologies include Blues for Bill: A Tribute to William Matthews and Spring from Gatehouse Press Ltd., Great Britain. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook Naming Rights in June 2008 and her next collection from them Field Rations, will be published in October 2011. She received her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January 2011. She is a contributing editor of the magazine.