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Song of Thieves.

by Shara McCallum University of Pittsburgh Press/ Pitt Poetry Series, March 2003 $12.95, ISBN 0-822-95813-9

In Song of Thieves, poet Shara McCallum's second book of poetry, she returns to the major themes that occupied her award-winning debut, The Water Between Us. In this latest effort, however, the poet's voice is more seasoned, mature and sophisticated. With more honed and diverse skills, she revisits the themes of the loss of her father and the varied sense of alienation she experienced as a multiracial child growing up in both the Caribbean and the U.S.

In the long poem that opens the book, the poet resolves that her late father, who passed when she was very young, was a "symbol/ of all I cannot name" and imagines him as "a house on stilts,/ out in the shallows of the sea,/ whittled by salt, wind, and rain." The third of five sections is devoted to the poet's native Jamaica, a country in which "each story dissembles as landscape." Here, the poet discovers "In my own land,/ I have become a tourist,/ a visitor from foreign."

Song of Thieves also explores the territory of personal and familial history through myths and folk tales. The poems themselves are often elevated to the level of myth by their haunting lyricism. And though they seek to reaffirm the cultural traditions out of which they are formed, they testify to an exile's indignation. There are also investigations of historic figures such as Teresa of Avila and, appropriate to McCallum's expressive aesthetic, Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. Unfortunately, a survey of the last lines yields abundant references to the details of faces (mouths in particular) and the behavior of darkness and light.

By the end of the book, the reader perceives less that McCallum is the practitioner of lyrical forays into abstraction and the sources of human expressiveness--which she is--and more that such images are merely comfortable tropes with which the poet embellishes her work. Like speech affects, the more they are performed, the more distracting they become.

Taken individually, these images are quite beautiful and distinct enough to avoid the vacuity of cliches. But a thematic buildup clogs the ear and undermines otherwise evocative poems.

--Gregory Pardlo is an associate editor of Painted Bride Quarterly, who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Author:Pardlo, Gregory
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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