[Issue #13, Winter 2005-2006]
Waiting for Beethoven
By Laurel Yourke
Marsh River Editions, 2005
Reviewed by Susan Tollefson
I love Laurel Yourke's poetry because it captures the full spectrum of human
experience, from joy to sorrow, from lightness to darkness. She told me
this collection, Waiting for Beethoven, was written with an audience
in mind that included people new to poetry. She hoped to entice such readers
into poetry's pleasures with her warm, accessible voice and poems of everyday
She has accomplished her goal and much more, giving us jewels of apparent
simplicity that yield rich layers of meaning. She achieves her effects by
drawing heavily upon the natural world, and through her use of metaphor,
sensory language, and the range of subject matter -- from smiling flowers
to a magical polar bear her narrator sees in her office. She also surprises
us with darkness of various forms surfacing just when the language lulls
us into thinking everything is fine.
Her effective use of the natural world's splendors varies from an impending
rain storm in the opening poem, "Waiting for Beethoven," to the
swans in "Lake Furen, Hokkaido," to the hawk patrolling her back
yard in "Wallace Stevens and the Hawk."
A master of metaphor, Yourke works the metaphor until all its sides and
angles are revealed. Whether it's a poem about metaphor, "Milking Metaphor,"
where she confesses "Milking is hard work: Early mornings, / tired
twilights" or "The voice of the sea pounds in time with the pulsing
of your heart" in "Voyage of St. Brendan," she illuminates
meaning with her deft weaving of metaphors into the poems.
The opening poem, "Waiting for Beethoven," captures the universal
moment before something happens, made rich by the comparison between the
hush before a storm and the "pause between the movements of sonatas."
And that moment is exquisite with longing, not only for what happens next
but for relishing the layers of the wait. "The interlude expands, expansive
as a sigh." It's a poem everyone can relate to for we've all felt the
charged quiet before a happening, relished the richness of anticipation.
"The moment stretches, swells, elongates into / a silence heavy with
sound." The ending lines almost, but not quite, release us from our
longing with the promise of fulfillment, "the long instant / before
the soft splash, / and then the thunder." But she doesn't release us
fully; we are left with yearning.
"The Minnow" is my favorite poem because the reader takes a magical
trip with the narrator, a trip of transformation. On the literal level,
into a fish-like creature. On the metaphorical level, into a self freed
of daily concerns and moving toward the water of pure consciousness. I believe
it is a metaphor for the writer becoming a poet. The poem is full of arresting
images. The fish, which at first appears in her dreams, is "Dark, small,
slimy, it seems to leak foul juices," suggesting that muck is necessary
in the creative process. And then, "One morning she finds the fish
swimming directly toward the iris of her eye." This line delights with
its surprise and venture into magical realism. The narrator is fertilized
by its penetration and transforms into a "breathless, weightless"
creature that swims "without a splash" toward "the starlight
and the sea." The beauty of the closing image sends a shiver through
the reader, makes her imagine herself as free, and lingers just the way
a good poem should.
"Better Than Sex Cake" surprises with its juxtaposition of the
lightness of the title with the ominous undertone of a winter morning baking
where "... the yolk stares back from the bowl, / angry as an eye."
The narrator's self-doubt surfaces through lovely, lyrical writing describing
coalescing clouds "like winter skin" and a sun "spilling
everywhere, / coloring everything, dazzling." But the narrator literally
loses her grip and the bowl goes flying as she wonders "When they decided
/ you can't eat too many eggs / and why she thought / she could make this
cake." Amidst the lyricism of a winter morning baking a cake is the
moment when the narrator feels discouraged by the stricture of "they"
and even doubts her own abilities to make a cake so bold as to declare itself
better than sex.
Another beautiful poem is "Her Hands," which captures the poignancy
of a mother's limited ability to protect her child. In the poem she can't
soothe the pain in his ears, but the closing lines show the baby and mother
crying "for all the coming lessons / on the limits of what her magic
hands can do." Again, Yourke takes a universal and important truth
for every mother and child and makes it so real we each stop and think to
a moment when we couldn't protect our child. We wince at the painful memory,
the wound lanced through the lyricism of the poem itself.
Yourke's poetry presents the moment we all yearn for: that instant of communion
with the world in all its mystery and splendor. And we are made better for
Susan Tollefson handled publicity for a college for many years before moving
to the farm community of Lancaster, Wisconsin with her husband Alan, her
pug, Angel, and her cat, Cleo. She writes poetry, short stories and is working
on a novel, The Laundromat.
for Beethoven from Marsh River Editions
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