Meanwhile: poems by Kathleen O’Toole
(David Robert Books, Cincinnatti, OH, 2011)
Kathleen O’Toole’s first full-length collection of poetry has a fitting title. In Meanwhile, the writer shares her ability to enter three worlds at once: the physical meanwhile the spiritual, the spiritual meanwhile the human self. An opening line can take us in through any one realm to the thin places where these realities appear.
Concerning the physical world, O’Toole trains us to be present to earthly moments. Many poems offer reverence along with non-attachment. Zen-like, a poem’s progression takes many turns to elevate our own thoughts, to states of mind hard to sustain. In her opening poem “Practice” the varied width and breath of each line flows purposefully, like the breath we grow aware of, through meditation. She works with simple language to give us complex notions. She does not delay in sharing her realization that to love is to let go. In “Practice” she conveys this wisdom through changing seasons: It is the season of letting go./Letting go of breath, of the sun’s heat ... which then leads us into the next state of mind, the mind of Autumn (13). The poet grounds us in autumnal images such as marsh wrens leaping at reeds in wind but also reminds us of their migrating nature and, in the end, equates this fleeting moment to human love. Her lyric poem, tightly honed, addresses this theme of impermanence: Thus held / love may appear – or disappear – without warning (13).
Throughout this body of work, readers experience other revelations that appear Buddhist in thought. Mindfulness, stillness, acceptance are states of recognition many poems embrace. In “Nothing But Gifts” the poet blesses adverse environments. Her practice is to simply bless that which causes suffering in the cycle of life. And so, each stanza starts with an invocation. Let us have a blessing for the dust that coats our clothing, she begins (49). And for shattered glass, for pungent smoke, for manure, the flowering mounds of the dead, the equatorial sun that is both harsh and bountiful – each stanza takes on adversity without fighting it. This poem I greatly admire. It challenges us to love that which hinders life. It suggests obstacles may even be gifts in disguise. Thus we come to appreciate the title.
Aside from Eastern influences, we deeply feel this poet’s connection to Christian symbolism. When it appears, it seems woven into poems as a way to examine our daily world, as in the poem “Portmuck Blackberries” where the past is drawn into the present through memory of a scene in nature. Here, religious iconography appears in the penance of thorns while the berry pickers are assembling in a dutiful band – like alter servers (15). What can the poet claim for herself, from having had such metaphorical connections, as in these emblematic thorns, as in this host of berries? Now I collect no more than a handful, she says; select each berry to taste, and relish (15). For me, the writer shares how objects become more pronounced through simplicity versus multiplicity. This kind of attentiveness reflects her Benedictine spiritual practice as well as her in depth study of haiku – whose spare construct makes sacred, small moments.
Throughout the collection it is Nature that we see, but its spiritual nature is in tandem with attempts to define the human condition, especially the poet in relation to her self. There are messages beneath the surface of written words. We see how these levels resonate with each other in a poem about Georgia O’Keeffe:
Like a penitent after the long fast
the artist seasoned her palette
until each pastel wash of petal
deposits pink or plum
onto our tongues … (37)
Here, the transfer that occurs from the palette to canvas, from the artist to observer – offers a certain communion, a religious Communion, a receiving of the Eucharist. Meanwhile, the poet also relates her own experience of the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe:
In this clear desert light, if I am still
I can enter the emptiness that dwells
in us, inhabiting in hers my own
And so, we have Nature and its spiritual effect on Human Nature.
In “Seen, Unseen” – a poem in five parts – each section captures a moment and its aftermath, and names it for what it truly is: heron wings before us and gone, a change of heart between the rich and poor, the possibility of seeing the dead or not. Or fireflies … lifting from the long grass / … appearing as if from air (21). Why not, the poet writes, our dead, our ancestors, the heaven/hell around us/ defying all we do not believe (21). We experience a similar juxtaposition in O’Toole’s 9-11-inspired “Triptych:” The potential of matter to hold / its opposite to become / foreign: sand to glass, / vapor to ice …/ lives to ash, and grass (40). In this poem what exists is also, simultaneously, restructuring life: craters re-order geography, a sunset disturbs the dust until what rises, rises with what it surrenders / and what it cannot disclose (40).
Aside from earthly images, the poem “Losing Ground” references those gone beneath the soil: a mother’s infant, a buried crow. The poet questions: How does one come to claim/ the weight of place, these days (22-23). And again, in “County Antrim Archeology” the poem opens with thoughts of decomposition: Two pounds approximately is what you’ll be reduced to / after seventeen hundred years…. (31). Whatever weighs on this receptive/ earth. Like a slow black hand, the centuries’ tidal wave / crests to clear the coast…. (31). However, in contrast to this burial theme is flight, as in “Trust” when the poet questions a take-off: As when the plane accelerates and lifts/us from the solid earth (35). Of this plane ride she concludes: to have faith /with the currents that suspend this flight (35). In pairing what lies beneath the soil and what ascends above – death and rebirth – the poet has found another intermittent state, another sacred cycle that deserves recognition. In fact, we can think of this entire collection as a series of poems that sing meanwhile, meanwhile – as we move from page to page.
While O’Toole’s images are contemplative, she is also playful with language as in the poem “Jardin, Morne Trois Pitons” where she opens with a delightful invitation: Enter into a thousand variations of wet (24). She then offers examples: puddle, shower, pouring mist, fuguing rain (24). One bead/on the elbow of an orchid stem, she adds (24). Once saturated with these vibrant images, the poem grows introspective: Be still. Why/ invent words for prayer? (24). Again, we are made aware of the poet’s ability to lead us through the known to unknown. She ends by naming what a colorful rain forest can lead us to: Within /this rainforest we grasp our own redundancy/encounter all that’s wild ... /as if to reel us toward the source /our unclaimed darkness. (25). It is this encounter with all that’s wild that gives us what Michael Collier describes in his blurb as a prayer-like resolve.
Meanwhile, read on. There is much that you can glean for yourself in this meditative body of work, through the profound thoughts the usher forth from O’Toole’s lyric poetry.
Therese Halscheid’s poetry collections include Uncommon Geography (Carpenter Gothic) which won a Finalist Award for the Paterson Poetry Book Prize, Without Home (Kells) and Pudding House Publication’s chapbook award, Greatest Hits. Her poetry and essays have appeared in many journals. She has won Fellowships from NJ State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Many poems chronicle her itinerant lifestyle, as when teaching an Eskimo Inupiaq tribe in the far north of Alaska.