10 Mississippi by Steve Healey
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2010)
This book is refreshingly different from the mainstream. Steve Healey’s poems are accessible, erudite, inventive, zany…I could go on. Essentially, they are works of art that appeal more to the intellect than to the emotions but they are no less powerful for that. They punch you in the right places and leave you gasping for breath.
Central to the whole collection is the sequence of ten poems about the Mississippi. The piece arose as a result of an invitation to Healey from Alison Morse from “Talking Image Collection” to write and read poetry in response to an installation art show exploring the history of the Mississippi River which was on display in the summer of 2009 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. That poetry eventually became the ten-part poem contained in this book.
The sequence begins with accounts of dead bodies being pulled from the river. We are treated to snippets of news: random pieces cut from newspapers, never the entire picture or sentence. Reading it reminded me of the collage of newspaper cuttings displayed as art in the work of artists and writers such as the late Ian Robinson. If we fast-forward to the end of the sequence, number 10 acts as a throwback to number 1, giving brief details from police investigators, witnesses and medical examiners, which gives the reader a sense of closure.
Steve Reich’s discovery that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops up in unison and letting them slowly shift out of phase with each other is aptly quoted and its application to the written word becomes immediately apparent in the second poem in the sequence. The fifth poem is central to the whole group where the progress of the river and its changes over time are compared, among other things, to the ageing process in man. These two themes run in parallel with each other and, put together, they make an interesting party of seeing little differences which add up over the years. In the next poem, Healey is at his most inventive fitting his subject matter to the rules of Hide and Seek. He notes how the four syllables of the word Mississippi, each propelled by an i vowel, begin to slip through [the] lips with a fluid sonority. The whole concept of hide and seek is given extra significance when you consider the backdrop to the sequence: the gradual discovery of dead bodies and the need for answers sought by the police. The musicality of the eighth poem is vividly portrayed in the choice of words: river, liver, lover, silver, sliver, mirror.
Many of the other poems that make up this collection read like a set of variations based around thought and word association. The effect on the reader is one of satisfaction. Reference points serve as markers of recognition so that a sense of structural purpose develops in parallel with the reading of each poem. This technique is amply illustrated in The Invention of the Alphabet, or The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog—a prose poem in eight short paragraphs that read like a series of statements. The subject matter oscillates between the school bus, the school, the teacher, the alphabet and the fox. The interesting thing about the poem is the way each paragraph is linked in some way with the one that goes before:
I sit at the front of the school bus and see the fox as it slips under the wheel. There’s a loud squeal and crunch. The bus drives on as if nothing happened.
Yesterday, Mrs. Berger taught us a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet. She said, don’t repeat this sentence or else something awful may happen.
Several poems hint at wider philosophical and moral issues but do not preach any particular standpoint to the reader. In Global Capitalism, for example, politics, economics and climate change all collide in one. Healy reflects on this with some neat imagery:
“No” is one word I couldAt the end of the poem Healey says:
have said more often. No,
this tea party cannot accommodate you,
elephant. I’ve already invited turkey,
bee, fish, wolf, and platypus,
and my igloo is about to burst.
…….I, too"Green Shoes" is a brilliant poem that hovers on the brink of innocence and experience and, most importantly, the protective instinct:
have invested unwisely in the future.
There will be plenty of pain
for those who can afford it.
Sometimes I walk to that placeThe sound of coins hitting the street has a special resonance given that earlier on in the poem there is this flash of violence that mirrors the scene so well:
where the cop stands in front
of the yellow tape and say,
what happened, officer?
The cop says something but
all I can hear is a child crying.
It sounds like coins hitting the street.
That’s when I know it’s time
I think about the other crimesWord games are employed to great effect in "The Rest of My Life"—a poem that oscillates between rest and motion. Few things remind you more of your mortality than listening to your own heartbeat:
I could commit. I could kick
a hole in a pony and take all
the gold doubloons that fall out.
I have a little man on me.
His ear is pressed against my sternum.
I believe he is listening to my heartbeat.
The second stanza is all about motion—the journey through life—where passengers on a flight are envisaged as being in the process of completing a huge form on a clipboard and are all hung up on a question they cannot answer—a preventive measure that could mean the difference between life and death:
When was your last tetanus shot?
The final stanza returns to the subject of rest in which Healey says
Have you noticed how hard it is
to be still? As long as my
heart keeps beating.
"Free Will" shows Healey at his most compelling. This is a poem that confronts us head-on. The way I read it, it is a poem that courts the fire of controversy when someone dares to be different, although I freely admit that, because the poem is so wonderfully elusive, other readers may place a different interpretation on it. Don’t let it burn you.
In the warm red house across the street live two womenUnderstanding is beautifully expressed a few lines later on:
who are firefighters who are in love.
They have two happy red lions
who run in slow motion as if they’re on fire,
always being saved by the firefighters.
Sometimes it’s hard to know if anyone has ever
been saved or made a choice…
When our mayor speaks, she sounds likeOne of my favorite poems in this collection is a poem about failure. This is not failure on the grand scale although it sometimes feels like it when you are growing up. I like it because it is so beguilingly human. It is called "A Life of Consolations":
a warm drug, she says it’s O.K. to love
a fire before fighting it to death.
You’ll get your reward in heaven, said my momThe final line, when it comes, brings with it a sudden comfort that is both magical and captivating. It turns the poem on its head and takes you to heaven.
when I didn’t make the cheerleading squad.
I remember this while pretending to study
the street map. Why do these little defeats
keep stabbing me after all these years?
can’t do the splits. At times
I’ve had too many freckles.
I have an old snapshot of them.
Like stars at the bottom of a chocolate milkshake.
That would be a good way to die.
Full credit must be given to Linda Koutsky who was responsible for the book design. The cover art comprises ten panels of water. All of them illustrate the play of light on water and each is given a different tint, any one of which could at any moment of the day be a plausible colour for river water. Even the contents page is laid out in such a way as to suggest the meandering line of a river.
This is an exciting collection from a poet who has something to say in an original voice. I have no hesitation in giving it a strong recommendation and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).