Oregon Ferry Review of Books

Leatha Kendrick. Almanac of the Invisible. Monterey, Kentucky: Larkspur Press, 2014. Handset limited edition. Hard cover $36; paper $26

Leatha Kendrick   Almanac of the Invisible Like all almanacs, Leatha Kendrick’s Almanac of the Invisible begins with “First Week of January”

          A day at home alone, with CNN
          and tea, remnants of the Christmas
          tree, ravenous for unsweet things.

This collection feeds that hunger for the unsweet, for the homely, substantial nutrients of the soul presented in an exquisitely crafted book of equally exquisite poems.

Balanced between grief for a dying father and joy for the birth of a first grandson, the Almanac is divided into three sections: “Shadow” takes us from winter into spring, “Against the Silver Rim,” spring into summer, and “Sipping the Invisible,” summer into fall, a cycle from death to death. But though the book follows the seasons, it is not restricted to a single year. Rather we are given a survey of the poet’s life, her childhood on the farm, her years as a young mother, her own brush with death as a breast-cancer survivor, and her present as grandmother and caregiver.

A series of “daughter” poems scattered throughout the book explore aspects of the father: “The Tobacco Farmer’s Daughter,” “The Dairyman’s Daughter,” “The Sky Watcher’s Daughter First Sees the Perseids,” and “The Downed Airman’s Daughter.”

          In pencil on yellowed paper my father
          wrote the towns, the names—
          every person who risked
          everything to give
          him food, a barn
          where he might

The father as man of the earth, man of animal husbandry, man of science, and hero (aided by other men and women of the earth) stands in contrast to the aging willful invalid of a “Daughters’ Visit”

          . . . And he appears
          in the front hall, white skin studded
          now with moles, his ribs, his spine

          rising through the shrunken
          flesh, his jockey shorts hanging
          white, white, He’d never walk

          out of his room this way. . . .
          old man, this hungry creature
          who’s devoured our father.

As the father is devoured, the “First Grandson” devours, hungry for life.

          His seeking mouth’s
          a bird of prey, his breath
          unfurls a scream. I am
          the rotting log
          he grows upon.

Hunger is a recurring theme in this collection—a hunger for the unsweet, the father who is being devoured, who forgets to eat, the French farmers who fed him, the baby who is all hunger—a theme distilled in “Hunger,” one of the several fine sonnets in this collection:

          Sodden drifts of petals line the gutters
          after yesterday’s rain. What is
          shatters, falls to make way for what is
          next. Oh well. The fruit destroys the flower.

In Western Wind, John Frederick Nims say a slant rhyme indicates something broken. This first quatrain gives us a very slant rhyme, only the growling noise of the repeated “er” to provide a scaffold for a bold self-rhyme, and the balanced statements “what is” and “what is next.” Note the onomatopoetic “sodden,” “gutters,” “shatters,” “falls.” And the way the stopped consonants of “gutter” give way to the flow of “flower.”

          No choices here. A ritual disaster
          strips each blossom’s perfect architecture
          to an awkward heart. Tooth to denture,
          radiant cheek to softened sag. Last year’s
          beauty bears a future hag. . . .

The music is rising to a crescendo in the next five lines. It’s hard to find a place to pause. The rhymes have become more regular but now they’re polysyllabic, “disaster” with “last year’s” and the amazing “architecture” with “tooth to denture.” And the second and third quatrains stitched together by the downward pull of that internal rhyme “sag” and “hag.” The flow of that “ritual disaster” gives way again to the stops of “architecture,” “awkward,” “cheek.” The language is dissonant. We admit it but we don’t like it, the truth of the epigraph from Robert Green Ingersol, “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences”

The final couplet returns a certain harmony, a certain resignation, but the rhymes still growl:

          No way to stop the feast, keep the rot at bay. Hunger
          is the only winner. Nothing here lasts longer.

The father is dead, but the grandson is born. Out of death, always comes birth. The penultimate poem, which functions as a title poem, brings resignation through shared coffee. “Sipping the Invisible” begins in longing: “Some mornings I wake up missing everyone / dead.” Father, mother, grandmother evoked by the smell of coffee but then the grandson appears:

          Their hours of sunlight gone, kitchen chairs
                              undone by years, regathered now

          in hours I spend sipping the invisible
                              coffee my grandson brews

          at his pasteboard counter,
                              the new day painted above its sink.

But the elegiac tone, the devouring hunger, cannot be held long at bay. It returns in the final poem, “After the Equinox” when “October spreads its wide blue jaws to devour / what’s left of summer.” A “father’s friend,” dying in hospital cries “help me”’ “to no one in particular // and no one answers.” A stranger approaches her in a nursing home and asks “Are you here to take me home?”

          Her wail rakes my back. A scuttle
          of slippers spins her toward
          the slow collapse—inexorable
          —between the unbroken surface
          and the opened mouth, singing
          release from what once served.

Small comfort in that “singing release,” but it’s the unsweet comfort we’re offered.

This book was handset and printed on a hand-fed printer and hand bound by Leslie Shane, Carolyn Whitesel, and Gray Zeitz of Larkspur Press. Arwen Donahue did the illustrations after an almanac’s zodiac signs.

I should disclose that Leatha Kendrick is a personal friend and I am among those acknowledged in this book as “sustaining” the poet. I can’t claim this review is totally objective but then something is gained from inside knowledge of the poet’s work.

Leatha Kendrick bio:
Leatha Kendrick is the author of three volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Almanac of the Invisible, from Larkspur Press. Her poems and essays appear in the anthologies What Comes Down to Us— 25 Contemporary Kentucky Poets, When the Bough Breaks, The Kentucky Anthology—Two Hundred Years of Writing in the Bluegrass State, Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, and I to I: Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists. She is a two-time recipient of the Al Smith Fellowship in Poetry from the Kentucky Arts Council and has received fellowships in poetry and fiction from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She leads workshops in poetry and life writing at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington.

Arwen Donahue bio:

Arwen Donahue earned her BFA at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, California. She co-authored (with Rebecca Gayle Howell) the book This Is Home Now: Kentucky's Holocaust Survivors. This is the fourth book she has illustrated for Larkspur Press. She lives and works on her family farm in Nicholas County, Kentucky.

— Sherry Chandler