KR Reviews

On Midwest Gothic by Laura Donnelly

Ashland, OH: Ashland Poetry Press, 2020. 84 pages. $15.95.

Contemporary American poetry inspires us to plant the seeds of social justice, to grow the balms that heal trauma, to celebrate the blossoming of our many cultures. In the spirit of these laudable departures from the limits of the old canon, Laura Donnelly takes us to the Garden again without having to turn back, finding a figurative Eurydice without ever having looked over our shoulders. People in Midwest Gothic (Ashland Poetry Press) come home by going away, as in “The Mower,” where,

. . . the grass
was a single strip
bringing her home
or leading away.
I don’t know which
or I do.

Similarly, it’s a nostalgic book, and it isn’t, as in “Elsie and Florence” where, “In the woods, there was a playhouse / and those cracked dishes for ornament. Come home, / come home it calls as we walk farther,” or in “Charlotte Sometimes” where “The white eyelet dress / a figment, one of the first / fictions left behind.”

Donnelly’s garden is not a place of shame or fear but a locus for reflection, inheritance, and the emergence of an elevated feminine as in the ekphrastic “After Blake”

. . . no sign of rib, no red gash
          in his side. [Eve] floats

like a dream or the distance
          between Adam’s sleep

and God’s hand. . . .

Cruelty must be left behind, as this century reminds us. In a poem here, “Cruelty” speaks, “. . . how unfortunate / we weren’t born someone else.” It’s time to go, not expelled, but as an escape from that voice.

Leaving the Garden is a personal narrative thread of the book made archetypal as in “Exodus,” where, “A woman and two children, // boy and girl, / exit the garden on foot.” In the reimagined Garden,

There was no snake, just
          my mother’s voice, urgent,

sure as the chime
          of a church bell echoing.

In “Transplanting the Flowers,” which comes after the exodus, the mother returns for and digs up,

What she won’t leave behind:
a poor woman’s dowry, the perennials
separated, transplanted
passed down.

The book speaks repeatedly of an inheritance from women of previous generations. In “Inheritance,” women named Angie, Alice, Helen, and Eleanor all leave the author something, “I have her rhubarb and her love / of reading at night,” and “I have her China . . .” and “I have her brown hair. . . .” The book asks what we owe the past, how to cultivate what’s been given to us. I write this review at a desk I have from Doris, in a chair I have from Virginia, my beloved grandmothers. If the future is female, Donnelly reminds us, so was the past. She writes of these legacies in “Rheum rhabarbarum (Rhubarb),”

. . . gifted with all the odd,
calcified bits, mismatched teacups
from the tables of old ladies, tucked into
musty paper. My attic is lined
with their wishes. . . .

Donnelly’s world is a world in which, in “Washing the Strawberries,”

Every sink should have
a window through which

you might watch
a cat stalk a June bug.

and a world where, in “An Ordinary Sleep” (the last poem of the first section anticipating the final poem of the book, “Summer,” a frame within the frame), Donnelly writes, “It was summer / when I slept and summer / again when I woke.” It’s also a world where, in “The Perimeter,” we are warned, “Don’t suppose there wasn’t violence from the start . . .” but also a space where the role of creator is in the poet’s hands, as in “Primula vulgaris (Primrose),” where “Blood and bone, I prepare the earth, / separate and transplant the primrose.” Always a sisterhood sharing, resisting, and guiding.

Midwest Gothic was released in the same year as those by two of Donnelly’s workshop sisters from the 2018 Sewanee Writers’ Conference—Cherene Sherrard’s Grimoire and Charlotte Pence’s Code. As part of Sewanee’s excellent Fourth Thursday SWC Reading Series, Donnelly, Sherrard, and Pence read together in October along with Eduardo C. Corral. The reading was posted on Sewanee’s YouTube channel, which offers an extraordinary catalog of craft lectures and readings.

Donnelly, inspired by her afternoon gardening, read garden poems from Midwest Gothic, including the third section of the book titled, “The Secret Garden Erasures.”

As with Eden, Donnelly claims this garden tale for a she-worldview (all the men and boys are in fact not directly mentioned, leaving only a “she” and an “I” and a “they”) that distantly riffs on the original. The fragments are brief as childhood memories, the traumas reduced to hints, “as if they could breathe” and “smothering” are followed by a proclamation: “I shall come back.” The healing power of The Secret Garden is not directly invoked in these siftings, but its association with the title can’t be erased and hangs there unsaid even as healing begins to inhabit Donnelly’s book. The piece ends “I could dig somewhere,” which reads like an announcement of what’s to come in the final section of Midwest Gothic—if digging is seen as a kind of searching and looking back from a safer place and time.

That search leads to music, which inflects many of the poems throughout but gains a topical role in the last section, with responses to Stravinsky’s “Theme and Variations” and Debussy’s “Jardins sous la pluie.” The poems in this final section are more reflective and outward looking—at birds, at parents, at an antique lightning rod. The final poem, “Summer” has the astonishingly vulnerable line, “A single // kind person can break me / open.” The generosity of these poems will break open even the most jaded reader, to return to something left behind and see it for something new.