Tour of the Breath Gallery: Poems. Sarah Pemberton Strong. Texas Tech University Press, May 2013. $21.95.
Review by Katherine Hoerth
A fairly common goal of poetry is to capture the sacred, the holy, in words. From Donne to Whitman to Ginsberg, poets have used metaphor to make tangible the intangible, to give it a face, a taste, a texture, a voice. This pursuit is, of course, hugely ambitious, though Tour of the Breath Gallery attempts this seemingly impossible feat in a slightly different way. This new collection of poetry by Sarah Pemberton Strong essentially rejects the notion of metaphor and instead, through sharp language and crafted images seeks to show the sacredness of our everyday lives – it’s in the delicate keys of a baby grand piano, a dying mother’s last tendrils of hair, or “the moon-shaped crack on the edge of this blue plate.” There are no great, grandiose or Biblical miracles here; instead, a miracle is something as small as breath or as sweet as silence.
The collection’s opening poem, “Moving a Baby Grand,” begins by setting up a metaphor: “The piano is hauled in, a captured elephant / legless, enormously dismaying on its side.” The speaker witnesses the piano being silenced and dismantled on her apartment’s floor, then hauled away. The metaphor, though, falls into itself at the poem’s fulcrum:
…And I remember:
this old piano’s white keys
are made of sawed-off tusks;
sometimes the metaphor for suffering
turns out to be the suffering itself.
Suddenly, the poem is about specifics, reality, what’s here and now, which is much more powerful than the original comparison in the opening stanza.
Several other poems also use metaphor in an interesting way. In “Another Thing That Amazes Me,” poem’s speaker rides the subway, marveling at the absurdities of everyday life: “…how, on the rush hour subway, everyone/ harbors beneath their dripping coats / a set of genitals,” “there’s a blizzard dumping sleet … and the streets are full / of people anyway,” and how “some people will stand / outside for an hour in this weather/just to see the de Kooning retrospective at the MOMA.” Winter’s gloom is all around this poem – in the language, sounds and images, and it seems as though the only defense against it are the tiny spots of color that remind the speaker of summer:
…The Platonic ideal
of a raincoat is bright yellow,
and though I can’t see one beyond
all the crotches on the Lexington Avenue Local,
it’s comforting to think there will be an appearance soon,
little rite of color to remind us of the sun’s assured return.
However, again, the speaker rejects this metaphor as a replacement for the real thing, and continues longing: “…I still want God to be more//than a perfect metaphor for loving, / … I still want to fall to my knees / for something other than this woman swaying above me.”
Perhaps the clearest illustration of this rejection of metaphor and symbolism can be seen in the poem “Mary, Being Hailed, Replies.” The speaker, Mary of Nazareth, instructs her supplicants to “Get up now,” off their knees, to stop looking for strength and holiness in the “million candles” that she’s become, the “many tiny flames,” the symbols of her. She continues: “You’ve been believing // as I once believed: that the holy is located / elsewhere” and that it will never “flower in the flesh of your own body.” The miraculous, the sacred, is what’s in the here and now, what’s in the moment, what’s inside of us. Through the use of voice, color, and sound, Pemberton Strong reminds readers of this, to look inward, to examine the bits and pieces of ourselves rather than the lofty ideals we’re often taught must be holy.
This collection is, then, a call to extol the small things, what we often overlook. In the book’s eponymous poem, “Tour of the Breath Gallery,” the reader is given incredibly specific, close up images of breath itself, from the a grandfather’s dying labor that “echoes through every room,” to the breaths of “two loves kissing / … their mouths a tunnel” to “The smokers” who seem to enjoy breath more than others – “look at their faces/as they inhale.” In “Hymn to the Body” the speaker praises the parts of our physical selves, using sometimes haunting images to show both its beauty and ugliness, from the “strong sun // of the head and the frail moon of the anus,” to the “great bowl of the pelvis, / from which the largest banquet is brought forth // if you dare tip a hand,” to the “knees, hinges / of age, bruised by false steps and worship alike.” In this world, a goddess is a plumber “decked in steel-toed boots/and dirty overalls,” and the messiah is a mother in a bakery, whispering “to her nursling. Eat. // This is my body.”
Though the subject matter of the book might not be anything new to most avid readers of poetry, the quiet voice and juxtaposition of the commonplace and the sublime are what set this book apart from others. She is able to turn the dust of everyday life into art, and she subtly asks us to examine our experiences to find the sacred around us, not above us, and as a reader, I am made richer for journeying through this gallery of crafted images.
Katherine Hoerth is the author of a poetry collection, The Garden Uprooted (Slough Press, 2012). Her work has been published in journals such as Pleiades, Rattle, and Front Porch. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Texas Pan American. Visit her online at http://www.katiehoerth.blogspot.com