Jane Satterfield, Her Familiars, Reviewed by Sue Hocker

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Jane Satterfield, Her Familiars, ISBN 1-932418-46-6, Elixir Press, PO Box 27029, Denver CO, 80227, 2013, 94 pages, $17.00.

Leonard Cohen wrote, “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”

In this slim volume, Jane Satterfield brings the everyday observations and experiences of a full life into poetry. From a wave of homesickness brought on by the wrong morning coffee (“Morning Coffee”) through navigating family politics (“Why I won’t attend my Sister-in-Law’s ‘For Your Pleasure’ Party”) to a woman’s path forward in a society she did not create (“Governess,” “Shade,” and “Clarice Cliff Considers Leaving Edwards Street”), this collection of work shows how poetry weaves and explains each human experience of the world. Connections – themes – are pondered and examined. Wedding dresses bearing their evidence of wear – of having taken their place in “the world’s full bouquet” – team with chocolates (“On Valentine’s Day I Pick Up My Wedding Dress”) to ensure the place of romance in a world prone to a practicality that melds into the cynical. The rhythms of cultures created by living beings – rhythms to which our senses are too often blind – rhythms of growth and of collapse are explored in “an easy slide through the centuries” by finding the parallels (“Collapse: A Fugue”) between a settlement in Greenland, Roanoke colony, Jamestown colony, the life of bee colonies, and the Irish troubles. A young girl, breaking the ties of class and expectations (“Clarice Cliff Considers Leaving Edwards Street”), makes her own way in the world, shows that world a new way to see itself, and leaves a new beauty behind her. These and more themes of the everyday are explored in this volume.

The final section of the book is made up of one long poem “Clarice Cliff Considers Leaving Edwards Street” almost twenty pages long.  Clarice Cliff was an English ceramic artist active from 1922 to 1963. She become the first female art director at the A.J. Wilkinson Pottery at a time when it was unusual for women to rise to such prominence in the workplace. The poem ends as follows:

……………………………………..A woman, the papers say,
……………………………………..who makes money
……………………………………..concentrates every atom of her brains, energy, and talent
……………………………………..on achieving success.
……………………………………..My sisters, their births and their babies?
……………………………………..Ambition of a different fire.

Clarice Cliff Melon shape 14 vase and Circle Tree Eton shape coffee pot circa 1930

………………Clarice Cliff (1899-1972), Melon shape 14 vase and Circle Tree Eton shape coffee pot circa 1930

Here is another example of Satterfield’s writing:

……………………………….Won’t Attend My Sister-in-Law’s “For Your Pleasure” Party

……………………………….It’s not that it wouldn’t be fun to slip on
……………………………….a backless dress, strip off
……………………………….professor-speak to clink Cosmos
……………………………….& peek at the latest Bliss vibrator,
……………………………….the beginner’s bondage kit complete
……………………………….with its cat-o’-nine tails & door jamb
……………………………….cuffs. Fun to nibble a little Fantasy Foam—I know
……………………………….there’s always more life to unleash,
……………………………….that in marriage the passion connection’s
……………………………….essential to keep. I’ll admit since mortgaging
……………………………….myself to the hilt I’ve started to skimp a bit,
……………………………….that even my best lace bra & knickers
……………………………….are laddered, no better than retreads,
……………………………….our sheets starting to get just a little shopworn.
……………………………….So it’s not that I’m entirely immune to your sweet
……………………………….invitation, not really opposed to learning
……………………………….new tricks. Oh, I get
……………………………….that you’re bored with the babies,
……………………………….the diaper routine; I don’t judge your way
……………………………….of becoming “an independent business associate.”
……………………………….Earning cash & toy credits, why not show off
……………………………….a little while laughing all the way to the bank?
……………………………….but, dear, I’ve been there for bake-offs &bbqs,
……………………………….The princess parties where I’ve shown up smiling,
……………………………….happily crowned. Trust me, says Kama,
……………………………….another sister-in-law, There are things
……………………………….you just don’t want to know. I’d rather burn
……………………………….in hell or a hot slow shower
……………………………….than in the shame of knowing
……………………………….the pleasures my brother does or doesn’t provide—
……………………………….So if my refusal makes me a prude, then say it—
……………………………….I wouldn’t have lasted a second
……………………………….in the Tudor court given over
……………………………….to gossip & systems of spies.
……………………………….Just this once let me beg off or bag out,
……………………………….leave you to enjoy lingerie, laughter &
……………………………….other “enhancements.” Let me plead—
……………………………….not my belly—but my carbon footprint—
……………………………….Just this once let me stay home & douse
……………………………….my dry, damaged, chemically-treated hair or
……………………………….husband with community-traded honey.
……………………………….In every dream home, I’ll hum, there may be a heartache
……………………………….but for now let Roxy Music shake the walls,
……………………………….while we take our pleasure, familiar measures of synthesizers & sin.

Throughout this collection, Cohen’s words ring: Poetry – “life burning well”, he said, and also “the ash”. Ash – the mineral residue of great, living beings – the distilled essence. An essence that, in poetry, finds its life by stripping away all unnecessary words and leaving the reader breathlessly present. Certain of these poems reach for that ash. A reflection on the living that gave birth to Charlotte Brontë’s novels (“Governess”) ends in breathless insight. The girl who didn’t fit in had “ambition of a different fire” (“Clarice Cliff Considers Leaving Edwards Street”). As this poet continues to find her craft in her experience, we may hope to find more of that ash in poems to come.

© Sue Hocker and Jane Satterfield

Jane Satterfield is the author of two previous books of poetry: Assignation at Vanishing Point (Elixir Press Book Award, 2003) and Shepherdess with an Automatic (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2000; Towson University Prize). She is also the author of Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter Press, 2009). Her honors include, among others, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in poetry and three Maryland Arts Council Individual Artist Awards. She is literary editor for the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement and teaches at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland.

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