an inkling hope: select poems
Erin A. Thomas
Formless Press (Verdi NV), 2014
Trade paperback, 190 pp.
Erin A. Thomas’s collection of something like two hundred poems is a model of how a poetry book should be put together.
To begin with least things first, it is a well-constructed, sturdy volume—thick enough to have that certain heft that makes it feel comfortable to the hand, thin enough to fit in a pack and handily take out for a few minutes enjoyment.
It is well presented, from Cedar Lee’s intriguing cover design, “Grounded,” to the clear, easily readable typeface (which at my age I appreciate).
It employs useful and infrequently seen critical apparatus. The “Notes” provide information about the genesis and evolution of individual poems, ranging from short sentences to considerations of longer historical, personal, literary, and philosophical points. Sometimes these notes merely indicate a direction, an intention, a hope on the poet’s part; other times, they help unfold intricacies of structure, content, and language that—when one returns to the poem—increase its depth and resonance. By separating them into a separate section, Thomas ensures the flow of what is most important—the poetry—while allowing himself to speak directly to readers…if they are interested in listening.
That is followed by “Index of First Lines,” a now generally ignored convention of earlier collections. It helps readers who, intrigued by a powerful opening line, wish to find the poem again. In a book such as this, which is not overtly organized thematically, such an Index is useful. (There is also an Index to titles at the front, in case one wants to search that way.)
The final section is the “Index of Forms.” This one is quite important. Thomas is something between a free-verse and a formalist poet. In one poem, he may create the illusion of free verse while subtly employing an undercurrent of stresses and rhythms; in another, a glance will immediately identify the piece as a sonnet—fourteen lines, octave and sestet, etc.—but reading it might point to an underlying relaxation of metrics, the frequent use of half- and slant-rhymes, creative permutations upon the “rules” so that the poem reflects both past and present. In this section, he speaks to his general poetics, defining the forms classically and as he might use them, identifying points at which he shifts expectations, and discussing poems in which he has explored with form and arrived at his own conclusions. For anyone interested in how poems come to be, this section is informative and entertaining.
So much for the last 37 pages of an inkling hope.
That leaves the first 153.
And here is where the book shines.
The first major poem, following a quatrain suggesting what poetry means to Thomas, is the eponymous “an inkling hope.” It is crucial to what follows, since it introduces themes, images, motifs, and metaphors that will echo throughout, while talking-about-without-talking-about the art of poetry itself. Its five stanzas are firmly embedded in the natural world: in seed and leaves and trees and flowers, metaphors for growth and dis-covery that form the core of many subsequent pieces. At the end, here as elsewhere, Thomas joins tenor and vehicle in a moment of particular insight as the unnamed character
reached and plucked one ripe idea
and nursed the tangs of inspiration
Sometimes the poems consist of a single instant of awareness, of the natural world suddenly clarifying something for the poet, as in “Monday at St. Rose”:
the pale ghosts of saints
peer in on empty wooden
pews and out across
vacant parking lots where crows
search the cracks for seeds and crumbs
or in the aptly titled “what is haiku”:
silent stone waters
wimpled light reflections
golden flashes of fins
His subjects range from the abstract “prayer”—which, rather like George Herbert’s seventeenth-century meditation on the subject, couples form and discipline to image and observation in arriving at meaning—to the concrete, as in “Aftermath,” in which the speechlessness and grief of the survivors of a tsunami are compressed into a tautly structured Shakespearean sonnet.
“Wordplay” approaches the knotty contradictions of form and freedom in verse, of structure (which implies premeditation and external control) and spontaneity (which implies direct expression of emotion). Unsurprisingly, Thomas speaks for the former in his sestet:
If all it takes to make a poem
is just to write what thoughts may roam
with no consideration for the flow of words,
then poetry is not an art,
but just a means for ailing hearts
to air undisciplined emotions to the world.
Emotions there are aplenty in an inkling hope—but also discipline, form, structure, control…and art.
If I have a quibble about the collection, it is that often poems are presented without initial capitals or internal/terminal punctuations. The result is that sometimes it becomes difficult to tell if a line is intended to stand alone or if it should be connected to lines above or below. In a lovely trio of haiku, “birch,” for example, the last line of the first poem contains a metaphorical appositive and needs to be broken from the first two:
one by four the breeze
loosens wings from tall white limbs
butterflies in flight
The final line of the second, however, seems to continue the middle line to create a single syntactical, more literal unit:
five by ten the winds
scatter yellow shades of brown
silent through the air
The lack of punctuation and shift of direction might lead to momentary ambiguity.
On the whole, though, an inkling hope offers up page upon page of gentle delights, images both nostalgic and breathtaking, insight subtle and direct. It is well worth reading.