Raleigh Review vol. 6, no. 1 (spring 2016), pp. 83-85.
Rusted Charms: Rough Knowledge
Christine Poreba. Rough Knowledge. Tallahassee, Florida: Anhinga Press, 2016. $20, paper.
It is fitting that a poet who uses language to capture commonplace locales, true stories, and the lives of real people won the first book prize bearing the name of Philip Levine—a poet renowned for writing about the working class. And in a poetic milieu where so much verse seems accessible only to poets, aspiring poets, and those with degrees in English, it is refreshing to read a book of poetry that maintains its ties with the common American idiom while fluently speaking the language of the tribe.
Rough Knowledge is accessible, but it is by no means light. Christine Poreba’s subjects are the big questions art continually returns to: motifs like marriage, loss, and dream-life recur throughout the collection. With a well-trained ear and a mind keen to see in the things of this world a series of trap doors through which we can access deep meaning, Poreba’s descriptions demonstrate her ability to bend our language enough to make it fresh without lapsing into obtuse smatterings of sensory detail. In “Flight,” the speaker describes a butterfly crushed on a car’s windshield:
But the mark left
on the glass could
look a bit like
any human sorrow—
the way the stain spreads
crooked in a corner
and vibrant colors slur
into a spot of white…
This depth and style permeate the collection. These poems are love letters to our interior lives, walks through the wilderness of our world, the register of a life lived deeply. Readers will not find themselves lost here: the poems portray gardening with in-laws, flying a model airplane, rebuilding a house. Made from the things of this world, Poreba’s poems have their doors flung open, and upon entering I found myself not in a maze but in the presence of language sculpted into experience.
For me, the most resonant poems in the collection are the ones in which Poreba uses her gifts for layering meaning. I found myself rereading “The Turn,” whose speaker contemplates the uncertainty that walks hand in hand with our thinking about the future and demonstrates Poreba’s ability to anchor her thoughts in physical detail: the speaker talks of knowing that
a certain twist of road, a whole range
of blue ridges awaits. Yet the knowledge
never quite prepares us for the turn.
Although we know something of what is to come, in a world fraught with change and uncertainty, we are never fully prepared; returning to a photo of a garden the speaker had planted, the reader begins to feel an uneasiness around our ways of understanding what the future may hold. Reflecting on the newly planted seeds, the speaker notes in the final lines:
…we might have been dropping
stars into the sky for how little we knew
of which might collapse, and which,
in that wide stretch of dark, would brighten.
The garden, a symbol for growth and new beginnings, is complicated and enriched by the speaker’s vision. Planetary awareness and human consciousness join to conjure the excitement and uncertainty fundamental to our lives, to new beginnings, and to any glance into the future. Poreba’s best poems are like this. Arresting from the outset, their turns are seductive, and the ends seem to come too soon, inviting the reader ponder and reread.
This is a hard book to put down. The poems’ speakers are emotionally honest, the language spellbinding, and the sentiment spot on. It is a great book to share with friends or family, especially those who are wary of poetry. Any reader will find at least a handful of poems that expand and grow with each reading, that call the reader back to re-walk their “worn and glorious tracks.”