Discount Fireworks

Wendy Taylor Carlisle

© 2008. Jacaranda Press 80 pp.
ISBN 13: 978-0-8232-2629-0 (Cloth alk paper).
A Review by Kathie Isaac-Luke

I first had the pleasure of hearing the poetry of Wendy Taylor Carlisle when she came to San Jose for a reading following the publication of her first book Reading Berryman to the Dog. Carlisle’s first collection was deservedly praised for its elegance and originality. Since that time, she has been widely anthologized, has further honed and perfected her craft and has received the Bernice Blackgrove Award of Excellence. Wendy Taylor Carlisle’s second collection, Discount Fireworks, just out from Jacaranda Press, is a work of remarkable range and depth.

Carlisle’s acute observations allow her to take an unflinching look at her subject matter and lay it bare. And whether she is writing about her own past or imagining a romance of the French novelist, Colette, she accomplishes this without pretense or judgment. In “Bloodthirsty,” she writes about two childhood friends. She neither censures nor praises them, they simply blaze their way across the page:

Rita and I were bloodthirsty girls. Wearing plastic
Roy Rogers holsters, we overrode the range,
shoplifted Evening in Paris from the Woolworth’s
downtown, dabbed it on and galloped the streets,
pumping our Schwinns until we were sweaty and rank.

Carlisle’s poetry smolders with this kind of intensity. Focused and disciplined, it cuts directly to the core. And her subjects run the gamut from Adam and Eve, through Greek myth, wars and disasters, surviving the fifties to the aftermath of Katrina. Many of her poems are grounded in the soil of the South where she lives. In “My South,” her images are stark yet infused with the longing that underlies all art:

On the left, the Atchafalaya, so black, so burnt inside, silent
as a pot. Down here, our lips equal silt

and common bliss. Down here, we carry our graves folded
in our pockets, a cardboard hunger, a box and shards.

Carlisle’s poetry displays a formidable command of language. Some of her poems are written in form that never calls attention to itself. When writing in form, she is able to interweave the structure into the fabric of her poem so as to make it appear seamless and effortless. The poems in this collection are expertly crafted and often veer into unexpected directions. In the poem “Swim,” Carlisle writes of a time “when the ungroomed beach stretched out as far as a kid could see, clean as a snake”…She ends the poem with this startling imagery:

…in the hot vacancy
of those years before I came to this motel,
a wild stranger, studying the drifts, in a time when
the soles of my feet still burned like little suns.

There are playful poems here too, indicative of Carlisle’s wry wit. In the whimsical “The Post-Impressionist Decorator,” a man who smells slightly of garlic instructs his guests:

…If they prefer another decoration,
the stranger murmurs, he can show them

“Starry Night.” His audience ignores
the stars, the winter cold at Arles, the man’s delight
in Sherwin Williams, his vagrant need
to trace those printed blooms with his hot fingers.

In “Drawl,” Carlisle explains her affinity for plain speaking:

What’s basic in me favors drawl, country words,
hot as August clapboards, words
that sound out what they mean,
that have a clean, plain life,
without too much decorum.

Although Carlisle’s language is direct and accessible, the poems in this collection are more than they appear on the surface. These are poems rich with metaphor which resonate on many different levels. This is nowhere more evident than in the title poem, “Discount Fireworks.”

…a celestial display
to bring us joy beyond the ordinary

gawk and murmur, demanding each man and woman,
each U.S. child, tip back, chin up to the firmament

and not quit looking or stop adoring
their country, their holiday, their smoke and burn.

After that show, who could keep her mouth from falling open
in wonder? Who could avoid an explosion

or resist drawing nearer and nearer the fire,…

In her distinctly American voice, Carlisle hints at how the fireworks blind us in our eagerness “to praise the beauty of America, an innocent America…” Without ostentation, Wendy Taylor Carlisle’s poetry dazzles us and reminds us of that which binds us together.