Chrysalides, a Poetry Collection

by Kathie Isaac-Luke

Dragonfly Press 2010 — February, 2012

A Review by Phyllis Williams
Kathie Isaac-Luke’s collage of incandescent imagery, stored since childhood and throughout a well-traveled lifetime, is not to be missed. Each line of her skillfully crafted collection is spun gold. It’s title plus the eye-pleasing cover art — a lace-winged dragonfly hovers above a pond — are clues to the central theme. She compares the stages of her life with those we see in nature, the first, for example, titled Emergence, is a series inspired by childhood.

From her Aunt Serafina she learns You’ve got to suffer to be beautiful, so endures a home perm while sitting in a miasma of ammonia which burned her nose and scalp. Later she allows latex and underwire designed to push bulges from one place to another, and learns to rip errant hairs/out by their roots. Thankfully, wild gardens with their random designs teach her to disregard those early rules about beauty.

In the poem “Melting,” she recalls Fireflies …harnessed/into lanterns/lit the violet night/ while she and a young friend dreamed of places they would go, the men they hoped to marry. In “Mama’s Bedroom” she remembers a picture of her war-wounded father, and contemplates war as becoming so commonplace it was accepted as part of the landscape. Her subtle yet profound protest against war appears again midway into the book. Traveling from country to country in “Silk Road,” she asks Is there any city I have traveled in/I can remember without grieving?/Any country left not fallen/or falling?

In Nymphs, nature’s second stage, as well as her own, she begins with “Chrysalides,” one of her most memorable poems, where her talent with humor is delightfully displayed. She introduces us to teenage petticoats/so stiff they stood alone/at night…crowded our bedrooms/like phantom flowers, giant brittle blossoms/ inverted and remarks that in days before Elvis, boys huddling in corners/wondered how to scale the walls of our domed fortresses/dreamed of peeling back/stiff petals of crinoline and net… we were restless in our/strange cocoons.

Another nymph poem concerns the writer’s own daughter. “Blame Aphrodite” combines a mother’s pain about letting go with the humor of conspiratorial mother/daughter fun as the two plot to entrap a soon-to-become bridegroom/son-in-law. The fellow doesn’t stand a chance. The poem “Retro” finds Isaac-Luke dreaming of how she’d have liked to live in Paris/in the fifties, to sit in an outdoor bistro drinking/coffee, pretend not to notice how the gentleman facing her lowered/his Le Monde to admire her well-turned ankles. And in “The Gentleman” she creates indelible images of days and nights in Heidelberg/honeyed light …in wine glasses. While sunset burned the Rhine/he read her Rilke.

Here and throughout the collection, we are often enchanted by lines either sensuous or sensual. In particular, read “Alchemy,” and enjoy Rita Hayworth’s filmed sensuality as Gilda singing “Put the Blame on Mame.”
Most of the travel poems appear in a life stage titled Flight. The first one, “Kinetics,” seems to be Isaac-Luke’s argument in favor of being a rolling stone. She describes a city cradled by a river/washed with stars/dissolving time in “Entering Cairo,” then Greece’s black cinder beaches and if you stayed too long, the underside/ears listening … whispered voices in “Atlantis, 1968.” In a poem about jungles — “Los Juncos” — her voice is urgent. We have come for the stillness, she writes, before it explodes into the spray/of saw blades, the plodding/of cattle hooves on newly leveled ground. And in “Southern Alps, New Zealand, also despairs over what man has done to the planet: Fringed with wild/lupine, their petals shaped/like teardrops, the mountains/silently bare their scars — the deep ones from intemperate mining.

Flame, a stage during which Isaac-Luke is a young nurse, includes “The City” and her dismay at how rapidly it transforms itself, then further expands on the theme of modernity and technology in “By My Lamp,” with lines that encompass what she once dreamed the nursing, healing life would be. Not this web of tubes and wires/this barrier between us/ not this/treadmill leading from monitor/to monitor while I adjust …the fluids/oil the delicate machines. What she had envisioned was simply to lay her hands/cool and firm upon your skin, to find/your pain and banish it.

In a poem of letting go she remembers so many things her father taught her as she attempts to plan his memorial the way he’d want it, remembers his words… any task given to you… you would do well. Later she ponders the end of her own life, deciding in lines from “Death Valley” she wants her ashes scattered, swept among the goldenrod and staffs/of manzanita, mixed with this eroded rock/to await the next greening. Again and again we find dramatic evidence of this writer’s love for and allegiance to the earth.

In the natural world living creatures often circle back, including those we call human. This is especially so during our later years. Kathie Isaac-Luke grew up in New Orleans, and writes of it on the first pages of Circling Back, the final section of Chrysalides. Her descriptions clearly those of a native daughter, are peppered with detail only one who grew up there would know. They end with nostalgia:

In the dry, brown refuge of my private West
I miss the mystery, that eerie greenness,
the ferns, mosses, translucent azaleas that thrive
behind the wrought iron gates along St. Charles Avenue.

More poems lead us to a quiet finale titled “Slip Stream” wherein the author experiences echoes of those who came before — women kneeling at the stream drawing water into a sheath of skins, the hunter paying homage to his prey. What is important, she decides, are not her carefully chosen words, but the heed with which we honor connections threaded between us, the grace by which we accept our place in this unfolding.

Kathie Isaac-Luke’s poems have been widely published. With her husband Charles and their daughter, she was a long time resident of Santa Clara Valley, California where she served as skilled and conscientious editor of the esteemed literary journal cæsura, a publication of Poetry Center San Jose. More recently she and Charles are semi-retired and live in Sonora’s historical gold country. Now drama critic for the local paper, she is even more in touch with nature’s nearby bounty. And never stops writing.

Phyllis Williams is a recently retired marriage and family therapist and a transplanted poet, having spent close to half a century in northern California’s Santa Clara Valley. Now she is back to the Pacific Northwest where she grew up and began a family that keeps gifting her with more and more grandbabes. Before her private practice days, she taught high school and community college English. She has authored two as yet unpublished poetry collections: Salt Years and Sand Trails. Today, with more free time, she devotes much of it to the teaching and writing of formal poetry.