(Poets and Poetry in America)

Enid Shomer’s poetry avoids the extremes of contemporary schools. Her work is layered and provocative, but it is accessible to all those who read literature, not just other poets trained in the same manner. Its many themes and subjects tend to coalesce around investigation of the mind-body problem from philosophical, physical, and feminist perspectives. The result is a physical metaphysics, a peace that comes from acceptance of the world matter, but matter shot through with spirit.

Her style is refreshingly various; she uses forms flexibly as well as blank verse that includes nonmetrical devices to center the poem and suggest form. Each carefully crafted poem is fully complete; her poems do not require others to explicate them. Their cumulative effect is, however, something beyond the sum of the individual poems, because her rhythms and characteristic metaphors engrave themselves deeper with repetition. She is particularly effective with long poems or sequences; her later books give these longer works increasing prominence. This Close to the Earth features “Pope Joan,” Black Drum provides “Notes from the Sketchbook of Gustav Klimt,” and Stars at Noon is devoted entirely to the life of Jacqueline Cochran, a pioneer woman aviator who has been virtually forgotten by the public. In each of Shomer’s poems or sequences, a major personality is developed through the poem in such a way as to provide a vital reinterpretation of the subject’s life and work. The trajectory of Shomer’s work has taken her away from the vivid regional poems of Florida Postcards and This Close to the Earth to a wider exploration of womanhood and its capabilities and constraints.

This Close to the Earth

This Close to the Earth is a series of intensely physical poems with a spiritual dimension; the feminism of these poems is layered and subtle. The book has three parts, the first containing passionate poems of love, the second containing a long poem or sequence, and the third composed of poems with an elegiac tone. Perhaps the most exciting part of the book is the middle section, the sequence “Pope Joan,” which is based on the legend of the ninth century woman who lived disguised as a man, became pope in the ninth century, and was stoned to death after giving birth in a papal procession. Against the background of a fabled medieval figure, the body-mind issues are thrown into relief. The legendary rebel comes alive in the specifics of her preoccupations. The poems run the gamut of form, including a sonnet and a sestina as well as other formal and free-verse forms, and the poems catch the nature of a conflicted, passionate soul, comparing the life allowed her with the life she desires. “Sestina of Visions” compares her life with that of the nuns:

O nuns,my sisters, do you love the fiery sky or must you blackenthe lilies with faith and lay over everything a chastegray pall? At midnight, a demon chasedme with a copper comb to flay my flesh to ribbons.

The sequence celebrates the female courage expressed through the story of Pope Joan, evoking the extreme constraints that have been placed on women.

The shorter poems, also, often use particular instances to speak of female vulnerability and courage. An excellent example, which sparkles with humor despite its serious point, is “Learning CPR,” a skilled sestina about a group of young people who are using “dummies, all named Annie” to learn the lifesaving moves of the CPR system. The group goes through the motions, during which the dummies become for them real people. “Annie! Annie! our small/ voices cry from all corners, tightening the springs/ in our thighs. We slap her, lightly, solely/ because it’s required.” As they work on the dummies, they recognize their own fragility; they are saving each other and themselves. In their vulnerability is their strength. The book’s title comes from a line in another powerful poem, “Among the Cows,” in which the woman speaker is told to “breathe with the Holsteins/ as a form of...

(The entire section is 1752 words.)