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It’s more than a little difficult to write a comprehensive review of Eloise Klein Healy’s newest book, A Wild Surmise. How to describe and analyze an entire life’s worth of writing, covering nearly four decades, from such an author—the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, the founder of Arktoi Books, the respected founder and teacher of writing and women’s studies programs across California? How to let a reader know the way Healy can, in one volume, capture the verve and essence of Los Angeles, the history and cultural legacy of Sappho, and the vital dichotomy of love and mortality, while still leaving room to write about her dogs? Like this, I suppose: read this book. It’s worth it.
A Wild Surmise is constructed as a history of Healy’s work, showcasing poetry from her seven previous books, including Building Some Changes, A Packet Beating Like a Heart, Artemis in Echo Park, and Passing. It concludes with a generous helping of new poems from the author. This gives readers the unique pleasure of watching a writer develop in thought, subject, and skill as they traverse through the book, jumping decades and subjects as the pages turn.
The book begins with “Furnishing,” a contemplative piece about what art to hang over the bed, which delves into the differences in perspective between lovers. (Her lover will never notice what mosaic is there; she, of course, will notice it too much). It’s a personal piece, and the reader feels drawn into the very sheets and mind of the author. This sets the tone for Healy’s work—clear and vivid poetry embedded within the physical and the personal, reaching outward toward the reader and the larger world.
It is this grounding in precise wording, personal experience, and physical place that allows Healy to so expertly navigate the topics she discusses. The way she connects the physical to the emotional and intellectual is stunning in its simplicity. In “The Living Fragments,” Healy compares her mother’s failing mental health to piecing together the fragments of Sappho’s poems:
“When did I go crazy?” she would ask.
She wasn’t crazy. She had many minds.
They all made sense, just like a word
on a fragment of papyrus means something
even when you know the rest are missing.
Yet, one cannot speak of Healy without speaking of Los Angeles. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Nowhere is her sense of place stronger than in her descriptions of Los Angeles, with its history, its sun, its people, and yes, its freeways. From “Entries: LA Log”:
I know I know
I’m dying a little faster of Los Angeles
but I suck in a piece of it anyway,
sing it out in little puffs
LA LA LA LA
about twenty times altogether
like a bunch of cheerleaders
yelling down the freeway in a bus.
Her new poems finish off the book contemplatively. She dwells heavily on mortality in the last section, including “American Jisei” (a take on the traditional Japanese death poem), and “La Brea,” which combines the tar pits of her beloved LA with the inevitability of death. Yet the tone is not morbid or forlorn; there is much to be hopeful for in these new poems. In “Redeemed,” Healy shows that her own redemption came not through religion but from
when I turned
and went back to Sodom,
to the friends and neighbors
I had lived among all my life.
And the section begins with “A Wild Surmise,” a love poem for her partner, and closes with “True Love,” describing a quiet morning talking about baseball. She finishes the book by reminding the reader that the connections between people are what make life worthwhile, yet somehow avoids the cliché itself.
Also worth remarking upon is the smooth integration of an audio component via QR (quick response) codes placed in the corners of specific poems. When reading, it is remarkably easy to simply hover a smartphone over the code, and hear Healy herself reading the poem in your hand within seconds. It brings new life to older poems, and adds a dimension of depth that enhances the book without detracting or distracting from the written words.
By the end of the book, Healy has created an intimate connection between author and reader, and when combined with her skill as a writer, the overall effect is one of community, of communion, of a midnight chat with an older, wiser sister or friend. A Wild Surmise is a book that won’t easily be shaken from your mind.
A Wild Surmise: New & Selected Poems & Recordings
By Eloise Klein Healy
Red Hen Press
Paperback, 9781597097598, 248 pp.