Elizabeth Harrington's Earth's Milk
Main Street Rag Publishing, 2007; 40 pages; $7
by Brant Lyon
In the "fake living room" of Fitzgerald's Funeral Home the director with "unctuous hands" and his face "a cold plate" loses his composure as the bereaved giddily toss keepsakes into the casket. The boys of summer "are like cars," the surviving daughter of the deceased, reflecting on her sexual coming-of-age in adolescence, remembers her step-father once telling her: "easy to rev up, harder to cool down. " She muses on how her mother has conditioned her to ignore her grief, snap out of her depressive moods: "I taught myself to please her / by learning subtraction. / I took out sound wherever I found it, / starting with my noisy heart."
In Earth's Milk, first runner-up in Main Street Rag's Editor's Choice Chapbook Series Award, Elizabeth Harrington's deeply reflective and penetratingly insightful poems speak of grief and loss, longing, family and childhood reminiscence from the clear-eyed perspective of someone grown wiser for it. Tender and profound feeling mixed with touches of sly wit and sardonic humor is conveyed with dignified restraint and an economy of words that have trimmed away the fat and cut directly to the bone. Where a less adept poet might lapse into flabby sentimentality or shrink into astringent bitterness or invective, Ms. Harrington's words are chosen with concision, precision, judiciousness, sensitivity, and compassion.
They chronicle a psychological journey and personal history that richly evoke landscapes as well as mindscapes, for these neatly interlocking poems, delightfully organic, aptly show how much memory is tied to place: childhood houses, teenage haunts, even how a dollhouse stands in for re-enactment of quiet family dramas. Their compressed, layered meanings seep into the mind of the reader, or drill deep to bring them to the surface like "the earth's black milk" mentioned in "The Hunter," a poem about the author's deceased step-father, who was a prospector in the oil fields of her native Oklahoma. "That dark sludge was our bounty," she says. And so, too, do the dark emotions of grief over the losses of both her biological father in early childhood and step-father in her adult years, and with it wistful musings about other lost loves, bubble up throughout, as pain yields to healing insight, transmuting psychic "sludge" to "bounty."
Ms. Harrington, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, shows through deftly drawn scenes and snippets of telling dialogue, as well as vivid poetic images, how sometimes the mind imputes worlds of meaning to--or needs to hold onto--the little things that keep us sane and our world together when it threatens to crumble. Or can help reconstitute it when it does, as when the pet cat of her girlhood becomes a "squishy" pillow that comforts her in mourning the loss of her first father, barely known to her, only to reappear in her adulthood during her bereavement for her second father's death as another cat on her pillow, whose saving aliveness "shoos [her] / out of the dark corridors of sleep, pulling [her] as if with her teeth / into one morning after the next." Ms. Harrington has masterfully linked her inner and outer worlds in graceful, poignant, and knowing ways, and extends an intimate invitation to the reader to share in her discovery.
Brant Lyon: It's falsely rumored that Brant Lyon ever uttered the words, "A rose without thorns isn't worth sniffing, so don't stick your nose where it doesn't belong!", though he's often thought of doing so. He writes poetry and music and often conflates the two as when hosting "Hydrogen Jukebox", a NYC 'jazzoetry' reading series. His poems have appeared in Rattle, Lullwater Review, Big City Lit, The Long Islander, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Your Infidel Eyes (Poets Wear Prada Press, 2006), and novel-in-progress, a bi-cultural romance set in contemporary rural Egypt, declare his allegiance to Truth, Beauty, Justice and the not-necessarily-American Way.