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Read Tour of the Breath Gallery with a blanket and a stormy day, read it surrounded by strangers on the bus, read it in the sterile confines of a hospital room – wherever you happen to be, Sarah Pemberton Strong’s vivid lines of poetry will quiet and sharpen the life around you.
A Walt McDonald First Book winner, Tour of the Breath Gallery focuses on “the details / of duller things: a space / of silence, an opened window, / the moon-shaped crack / on the edge of this blue plate.” Strong’s book praises silence, and in doing so, allows the reader to hear what she has learned by listening.
The collection is divided into three parts, beginning with the heart and moving outward. The first section deals with the lessons learned in silence, that “sometimes the metaphor for suffering / turns out to be the suffering itself,” and that “if you want the world / to be less burdened with cruelty / and indifference, this moment you / are standing in would be the ideal / fulcrum from which to lift a finger.”
It advocates for the value of the physical, the tangible, and the self, particularly in womanhood. Strong’s version of the Biblical Delilah tells her daughter to “win / your own heart first, cherish every cell / of yourself,” and the contemplation of a teacup leads to the revelation that “you do not have to be clean, or whole, / you do not have, even, to be loved / to be radiant.” A sense of wonder and wholeness permeates this section, and the revaluation of self enables the persona to spread her awareness and compassion externally, toward child and community. Throughout the book and particularly in the beginning, a sense of interconnectedness binds not only the poems, but also the persona to her world.
The second section deals with the act of learning what was imparted in the first section; in essence, it reveals the beauty in the act of living. Several love poems are included in this section – “Nest,” the most striking and gracious, a missive to her trans lover, sings for “the slim green branches / and pale unopened buds / of the girl who / inside, you are.” Although there is always “the burden of our folded wings,” at its root, this is an utterly optimistic book, showing “that when / there is no light, our eyes open anyway: / searching for it, then for each other.” The second section concludes with the persona transformed into a goddess in steel-toed boots and overalls, gaining her power from learning the plumbing trade, using her hands to build and create and fix, imbued with the elements of the earth she inhabits.
Finally, the third section extends back to the past, to family and heritage, and looks at the ramifications of inheritance and death on life, the “breaking down / then subsequent repairing of the world.” Her relationships with father, mother, and friend are examined, revealing bonds that are fragile and yet resilient, like spider webs on grass “whose strength is that of steel, / yet can be torn like that / and then repaired;” bonds that extend behind and ahead, leaving traces of history, like a trail of footsteps in the snow or the fingerprints of the deceased that “still mark the doorknobs and teaspoons / of the living.”
Strong leaves the reader with an envoi, circling around to where we began: praise for silence and the quiet contemplation of the smallest parts of life from which we can extrapolate the most profound meanings. And yet, for all that this book reaches toward the invisible and the transcendent, it is deeply rooted in the physical world, particularly in the body. In “Mary, Being Hailed, Replies,” we hear “first call / your own self sanctified; then you can pray.” It yields a unique, almost spiritual reading experience, in which one feels both at home within the cells of the flesh and within the intangible bonds of love and community. The “tour” that the reader takes with Strong brings the highly personal and specific to a place of beauty and universality. Tour of the Breath Gallery may speak quietly, but nonetheless leaves an indelible trace.
Tour of the Breath Gallery
By Sarah Pemberton Strong
Texas Tech University Press
Paperback, 9780896727946, 88 pp.