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The poetic sequence.

The single-themed collection or book-length sequence of poems makes unique demands on reader and writer. A narrative "through line" builds connections among the poems. Lyrical and prosodic elements sustain sonic interest poem-by-poem. Finally, readers seek a deepening that resolves or illuminates the poet's central concerns and characters. In recent years, women poets, especially, have achieved considerable success with such collections.

A brief, selective inventory suggests some of the subjects and themes interested readers may find.

* In Night Watches: Inventions on the Life of Maria Mitchell (Alice James Books, 1985), Carole Oles speaks in the voice of the first professional woman astronomer and invites readers to imagine Mitchell's life and times.

* Of her 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Thomas and Beulah, based on the lives of her maternal grandparents, Rita Dove says: "I was consciously trying to put a narrative into short lyric poems--stringing the lyric moments one after the other like beads on a necklace." ("Interview," Modern American Poetry, August 12, 1995).

* Louise Gluck's The Wild Iris, a sequence of prayers/dialogues spoken by flowers and gardener, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

* In The Homeplace, finalist for the National Book Award, Marilyn Nelson historicizes one African American family by telling stories of individuals in three successive generations.

* Ellen Voigt's sonnet sequence, Kyrie (W.W. Norton, 1995), a finalist for the National Book Critic's Circle Award, dramatizes the 1918 influenza pandemic through a series of persona poems.

* Employing archived papers, Enid Shomer explores the world of American aviation in Stars at Noon: Poems from the Life of Jacqueline Cochran (University of Arkansas, 2001).

* In 2002, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Alicia Ostriker's The Volcano Sequence, a linked series of hymns, prayers, and arguments with God and self.

Carole Oles' Waking Stone: Inventions on the Life of Harriet Hosmer weaves a fascinating biographical narrative of the nineteenth-century American sculptor who moved to Rome to study and do her work. As in her book on Maria Mitchell, Oles "invents" from well-researched biographical materials. The book-length sequence interleaves persona poems with intimate addresses, creating a multilayered conversation between poet and sculptor. In the poem below, Hosmer considers her finances and the sculpture that will earn her economic independence:
   Making Money
   makes me turn from sculpting life-size women
   to this mischievous, thirty-inch-tall Puck.
   I begrudge my father who partly feigns
   financial crisis to lure me back from Rome.
   I will use this very noose
   to untether me from Father's purse.
   How could he expect I practice thrift
   when what he's taught me is indulgence?
   He knows nothing of the cost of marble,
   managing a studio in Rome
   or keeping company with giants.
   Nothing will induce me
   to live for the next twenty-five years in America
   where I never knew that quiet or content
   I have in Rome, sunrise to sunset.
   Wayman Crow remains my patron
   and I never lack commissions
   the maddening trick, be paid as bills come due.

   My little Puck, first son, some say
   resembles me. He raises high a scorpion
   in his palm, some say as if to throw it.
   I think to demonstrate his force: scorpions
   so capable of harming children, but not
   this child! My devil-born god-child.
   His left hand grips a lizard whose tail
   ascends his arm--such as my own childish
   familiars on the Charles River bank.
   He wears an inverted seashell on his curls,
   he's fit for flight with batwings.
   So fantastical, though his sex is real.
   Perching on a toadstool, one leg folded
   under, the other primed to lift
   his forward-leaning body braced upon that heel,
   his curling toe already activates my Puck.

   He's all potential, can spring at any moment
   while the viewer turns around. Will he
   hurl the scorpion? Will the curling toe be
   planted as he rises to give chase?
   My first Puck brings five hundred dollars.
   I later raise the price to eight.
   The Prince of Wales tours my studio
   and buys a Puck to live with him at Oxford.
   Over time, Puck and his brothers
   earn me thirty thousand dollars.
   He is called "a laugh in marble."
   Supporting myself, I get the last laugh.

--from Waking Stone: Inventions on the Life of Harriet Hosmer
University of Arkansas Press, 2006
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Title Annotation:Field Notes
Author:Becker, Robin
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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