The Ceremonies of Longing


Sandra Kohler
The Ceremonies of Longing
Winner of the 2002 AWP Series in Poetry
University of Pittsburgh Press
76 pages, $12.95

The first-person narrator who runs throughout this book forms the threads in the weft of the poems Ms. Kohler weaves — these poems look inward and outward at the same time, as she searches for her space within the natural world.

In her poem “Swimmers,” which is made up of lengthy, prosy C. K. Williams-esque lines, she tells a sort of story of house, street, family. The narrator is both observing and analyzing her own life, and all its uncertainties, in the midst of it all:

The car starts, papers land, the street is
empty again except of the woman who came out to see
                                                                  If the noise
changed morning.  If I stay as close as I can to what happens it will
change.  I will understand the underside of what I do each moment,
I will be less afraid of dying.

Just lines later, the poem becomes more confessional — as if she needed the entire poem to come this understanding as she “picks up part of [her]self dropped on the /shore.” The last line in this poem is the most telling: “The river moves through like a woman who wants to be/anywhere but in the future, the only place she is sure she is going.”

Section II, entitled “The Other Hour,” brings the persona to more specific places, more specific stories. As she mentions in “Renovo,” “The architecture of desire is redrawn/ at every stage of knowledge” — a quote that could easily serve as a theme of the book. We move through places — a pond, the Gulf War, Arcadia — into the minds of characters, real or imagined such as Jane Eyre or three aunts she sees as “necessity’s hags”; a walk through a museum makes her see Magritte’s sky when she exits.

The third section, titled “Tuesday,” brings much more of a solidity to her work — a sort of assurance of the things she’s learned: “. . . beneath/ my window, perennials are beginning their green journey/and the maimed azaleas will or will not bloom” (from the poem “Green”). It is as if she has begun to settle into her own skin: in “Soujourn,” she realizes: “We are ghosts, sojourners. / The inchoate earth is turning. Let go. Let the buds wither and fall. Live as if you were immortal.”

This is a beautiful book, filled with clean wording and fresh metaphors. It seems fitting that her final poem is a celebration of herself as a poet: “I am writing for time, clarity, the lucidity of parsed / moments. I am writing to leave a small fossil that says I lived . . .” As if the poem itself is the ceremony she has been writing toward.

— Heather Yanda

Copyright © 2004 Heather Yanda.  All Rights Reserved.

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