Online Edition: Fall 2000

By a Thread by Molly Tenenbaum

By a Thread

Molly Tenenbaum

Van West & Company ($14)

by Tim Scannell

In this first collection of thirty-two poems, Molly Tenenbaum illustrates the mastery of poetic eye and delicate fingertip of imagination. One recalls, a generation ago, the felt awe in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, or the more aware sensitivity in The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas. Those traits of the natural world--image and motion, light and color--are fully explored by this poet's skill.

Two poems will easily become exemplars of their kind in the Western Canon: "Every Single Sprout" (we will never again allow our usual abuse of the garden slug); and "The World is the Shape of a Cat" (a hymn to the poet's cat, Nellie-Ivy). A litany of slug-destruction is presented in the first stanza of "Every Single Sprout": the jar of beer, so that "they'll bumble in"; or "diatomaceous earth" to cut their coating "so they leak from themselves," etc. The poet prefers, in dewy morning, to "pick them like fruit":

berries that must
        be drawn by the barest of pressures
off the briar that wants
        to keep them . . .
                   . . . one like a plum seed,
        but fatter, lines on the sides
like the stripes leading back
        from the corner of a kitten's eye;
one with the spotted grace of a leopard,
        slender as a salamander, lucent glossy brown.

Even in dry summer, when the slugs do not travel far, the reverent persona will rise "as if theirs is a sweet gift / of silver-trail, of every rescued color--" This crescendo of care for all things great and small emerges, transcendentally, in the passing of the poet's cat, Nellie-Ivy, whose body and spirit are memorialized by "the vault of starry sky, / when every bound leaps you over a tall black hill, / you're high in the hump of her black shoulder . . ."; or, "when you, looking the other way, just glimpse / a cutout on the sill, a stamp / to see through where she used to be, / you're at the sharpened / pupil of her daylight eye."

And so, each plucked string of Tenenbaum's imagination is separately and seen--appreciated; yet the reader may wish for more resonance, a bolder vibration of emotion that is not merely a meditation of things minutely observed, collated, juxtaposed. One is reminded of the anecdote concerning Emily Dickinson, who would only talk--even to her best friends--through the crack of a slightly opened door. Molly Tenenbaum need not be as reticent or cocooned: her poetic voice is mature, finely honed. The structure of her poems, each averaging over two pages in length, build powerfully, wholly aware of development and destination. What would be welcome is a more modulated tone of engagement and speculative encounter, enticingly hinted at in her "Beach Walk and Bad News" (a descriptive meditation on barnacles): "Not tenacious, not clever / to feather supper from the tide, / not foolish or wise to cling or stand-- / but at least they're hungry, / curled in salty houses. At least, hard." More salt, please--more bite of tumultuous wave into shore. I am eagerly looking forward to Molly Tenenbaum's next collection.

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Fall 2000 Table of Contents