The Joseph Tree by Isabel Chenot (Wiseblood Books, US $14.00; the publishers can be addressed at P.O. Box 870 Menomonee Falls, WI 53052, USA, or emailed at email@example.com)
Isabel Chenot writes beautifully about the transcendent power of nature in this poetry collection. It’s dedicated to a friend who lost her baby son. The poem documenting this is staggeringly impressive:
“You were his space, his flood, his element –
Your blood was his kinetic spark.
But moving on your water was genesis
Spirit and spirit’s Ark.”
In the landscape poetry of the book, which comprises most of the rest of it, we also see intimations of immortality. These aren’t the teleological “sermons under the stones” of a Wordsworth. They’re more reminiscent of Patrick Kavanagh in the way they’re threaded seamlessly through the lines.
Poetry, she writes in her introduction, has a “terse sharpness to tell the ache of our core fracturing”. To that extent it’s the natural language of vision and prophecy. Both are evident here in a style that – to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway on F. Scott Fitzgerald – is as delicate as the dust from a butterfly’s wings.
Generously served with quotations from both Old and New Testament, Isabel crafts her lyrics with visionary zeal. We don’t know where any of the poems are going to lead us. That increases their power. The sentiments aren’t imposed. It’s as if they just occurred to her.
Teasing “the fingertips of grace” into existence, she writes, “Life came as clear/as prayer.” They’re poems of searching but cathartic answers are generally within reach: “Faith apprehends the dark.”
Loading every rift with ore, she strip-mines the mother-lode of present and past. History is described as being “like God’s garment folded in a boat”. With a proficiency that seems to belie her youth she proffers what she calls “etchings on a soul” in bite-sized chunks of monumental insight.
“I am too stooped, my God, to carry you,” she reveals. The Almighty, who “shoulder[s] every broken will’s/ burdensome sky” carries her instead.