“Small Town America,” an oil painting from Tom Brown, seems a perfect visual encapsulation of the writings contained within Poetry en Plein Air, Marianne Szlyk’s latest collection of both previous and new work. First, Brown works in the en plein air style of painting, making Szlyk’s title appropriate. Then, the reproduction of his impasto-style work shows the thickly textured relief aspects of his work.
Why is this apropos?
Much like Brown’s painting, Szlyk’s words create the illusion of depth.
Poetry en Plein Air collects 62 poems from three of her earlier volumes along with 29 new poems, making this book a “sampler plate” of her work.
While Szlyk’s love of music is always evident in the diction and meter of her work, many of her new poems grow from her admiration for visual art, which also may explain the title using a mid-19th century French style of painting. In a two-part poem, “Working With Stone,” she honors Italian painter Bice Lazzario while “Rothko on Portland Street” studies the Russian-born American artist. Even when not relating her words to a specific artist, there are visual aspects to poems such as “Birch Trees in North Carolina” that encompass “this quilt of sky, earth, and vine.” Equally visual is when Szlyk places readers in the Midwest “At Mile Zero on SR26.” One problem in that poem is it’s difficult to determine the most powerful image at a place where:
The open road unspools
Like a fresh typewriter ribbon.
Her inclination toward music abounds in these pages, including previous titles such as “After Miles Davis’ Amandla,” “The Jazz Harpist Considers a New Album” or “The Jazz Harpist Lies Sleepless,” as well as “The Music of Her Life.” In “Of Music and Metaphor,” the poet classifies people as various recording formats, from vinyl to downloadable. The newer selections offer “Listening to Electric Cambodia,” honoring a Khmer singer who “will not live to see thirty,” and in “Music in a Spring of Wind and Rain,” Szlyk she details how:
Piano notes and drum beats flow,
a waterfall contained in a courtyard.
I imagine a friend, a jazz poet, listening to this
and after a series of memories, concludes that
Everything I hear is water.
Like the example above, many of her pieces end with strong, succinct closing lines. In “Chicory,” Szlyk’s narrator is the plant itself, a life form proclaiming, “No one civilizes me.” Meanwhile, “Midsummer Moonrise” advises readers to “smell the earth at night.” She mourns the loss of small businesses in “Bethesda,” where “No one notices this ghost” now haunting
that rise up
like invasive flowers.
Szlyk commemorates Marianne Moore’s influence on her own writing in a poem titled “In Pale November” and recounts how “I count syllables the way she did.” Such powerful finishing statements might well culminate in “Summer Solstice on U Street,” a poem celebrating jazz sax player Gary Bartz whose music was so strong that “We can no longer pretend.”
Like many of her time, Szlyk recalls the personal impact of 9-11 in “Lafayette, September 11, 2001,” which ends with the plaintive yet simple “I prayed for rain.” Other pieces reflect history, whether it be personal experience when “My Mother Told Stories” of “cars with no radios” or “her favorite candy/Necco wafers,” or the modern as presented in “Green Corners Park,” a place that offers an escape from “a symphony of smartphones/and car stereos.” Facing her youth in “Facing Worcester,” she commemorates the regional language she grew up using. Originally from New England, her imagery from that region shines through in various spots, such as “In Another Life, We Live in Presque Isle, Maine” where
the fog will roll in with dawn,
binding us here
to this place.
Mood likewise figures into the 91 pieces here. The inevitability of “November” promises to be “the safest month” even though
she stands, a sharpened face in the muted month:
that nonetheless, for her, promises sorrow.
This stands alongside “Home from the Oncologist” as exemplars of reflective melancholy. Meanwhile, note the sly humor in “A Paralegal in DC” as a young woman wonders “where all my time in this city has gone.” In a similar fashion, “We Never Can Live Where We Want” documents a ghost who “can’t leave town” while recalling a place “upon which I, no angel, dance.” Then, there is the worldly advice to readers when Szlyk tells them to “Find Your Beach Where It Is.”
While Szlyk prefers the shorter poetic structure, it’s not to say she can’t riff as well. Writing a “Waleje for Caroline,” she employs the Nigerian poetic format that extends a series of seven-stanzas and recalls a generation of women who “glowed” and notes that:
Her daughters will sweat,
playing tennis to win, lunging for the ball.
Caroline does neither.
Standing, chilled behind the picture windows,
she lights a cigarette.
Another departure from her poetic norms is “Scene from the Blue Room.” The piece is a multi-page examination of three women, each speaking in her own voice, and has a theatrical quality about it. Perhaps Alan Britt sums up Szlyk’s poetry best in his introductory notes when he informs readers that her work “presents an open invitation into the poet’s inner sanctum.”
My personal recommendation?
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