Jennifer Reeser's Winterproof

A cover blurb for Jennifer Reeser’s Winterproof, calls the collection “a veritable garden of verses”—an apt epithet, one might think, for a book in which the five sections are named after parts of a plant, and which burgeons with names and descriptions of flowers, herbs and weeds, tumbling over each other at times like a riotous flowerbed. Except already the word garden seems a little too tame, doesn’t it? In fact when it is being used to honor a poet as exclusively formal as Reeser, “garden” risks implying the possibility of over-design, like the grounds of a Victorian manor. I hasten to contradict that impression: this book is as lush as a rainforest.

Indeed, although all these poems demonstrate Reeser’s allegiance to meter, and most the dexterity for rhyme of which readers of her first collection An Alabaster Flask will be fully aware, in her expert hands these formal tools very rarely feel like they have placed any kind of constraint on the poems. They act more like the artful trellis or bamboo pole upon which the poems grow, organic and free.

Partly this is because of the sheer diversity of rhyme schemes and metrical structures that Reeser allows full play. Yes there are sonnets aplenty—Italian, Elizabethan, Spenserian and nonce schemes—but also ballads, blank verse, couplets and triplets, the odd Sapphic, dactylic rhythms of various lengths, quatrains with a fore-shortened last line and even a couple of poems in a curiously hypnotic rhythm: an alternating pattern of two weak and two strong stresses, like a triple double iamb:

If you come, speak. No one’s thought here is a thief. Look
At the steel slant of the sun come through the scratched panes.

Reeser draws material from abundant sources, too. The natural world does feature largely, but there are poems here on such topics as different as Li Ch’ing Chao (The premier woman poet in the Chinese language, 1084-1151), war, a new slant on Gone with the Wind, and even Miscarriage:

I held the dead too long
as women do.

Reeser loves to luxuriate in language, and her descriptions of places are rich with colors and textures, fabrics and scents:

This room is my conception, mine alone:
mine the provincial porcelain and paper,
the dresser glass distressed in gilded bone
behind the sticks where two blue candles taper.

Occasionally the sense of opulence this delivers is slightly spoiled by a certain over-abundance of words, particularly adjectives, like a good roast drowning in too much rich sauce:

Inside this room, this gold, the dresser mirror
contorts, its frame white-washed, antiqued and rough,
when there is no accounting for reflection
proportioned, even, beautiful or true.

But this is a tiny and occasional flaw in a collection that delivers poems of art and subtle allegory:

Remembrance is
a neighborhood
where convicts live
with great and good.

Reading Winterproof is a way for all lovers of formal poetry to winter-proof their hearts against the barren aesthetics of post modernism at its ugliest, delighting in Reeser’s fine observations and elegant, effortless rhymes:

from chips of umber, ivory and buff
in burlaps, blasted plasters, plaited strings…
Integrity is in the weft of things.

Winterproof is available from Word Press and Amazon.

Anna Evans’ poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Harvard Review, Atlanta Review, Rattle, and 32 Poems. She gained her MFA from Bennington College, and is the Editor of the Raintown Review. Her chapbooks Swimming and Selected Sonnets are available from Maverick Duck Press.

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