Book Review

Joy in the Morning by Mary Jo Balistreri. Shoreline, WA: Bellowing Ark Press, PO Box 55564,98155, 2008.  $14.00.

Reviewed by by Judy Barisonzi

Mary Jo Balistreri is a poet who is moving in the right direction but hasn’t yet found her voice. Although uneven, her chapbook, Joy in the Morning: Poems, from Bellowing Ark Press in Shoreline, Washington, still has its rewards.

Joy in the Morning has three sections; the first—and weakest—consists of poems about nature, especially the changing times of day and changing seasons. Somewhat obviously, it begins with a poem about sunrise and ends with one about a sunset with “the first glimmer of dawn.” The seasons are personified, usually as women, with particular attention to their clothing. For instance, we read of “forsythia’s dress in yellow” (12); in another poem this becomes “the forsythia shows off in yellow organdy” (13).  Or in “A Changing Gift,” “tattered green weeds sway in tall/elegance” in “crocheted dresses”(21). Balistreri depicts natural phenomena in terms of not only human clothing but also human activities and emotions. In the poem “Spring Comes to Saylesville Pond,” “Spring opens her easel” and “a baby gingko struggles/to see above its wire playpen” (13). These personifications may be charming, but I feel the lack of close observation, intimate knowledge of the natural world, and the ability to see a pattern in the whole. It’s true, Balistreri likes birds. In one poem, finches are “haloes of buttery yellow” (11), in another, “they puff into golden/globes” (14), while in a third, they’re “yellow-robed finches” (22). Although these descriptions are pretty and fanciful, I don’t get the feeling that Balistreri knows finches. There’s nothing in these poems to make me say “I never saw it like that before” or “I never made that connection.”

I’m going to jump to the third section of the book, which consists mostly of poems about illness and death, especially the deaths of two of the poet’s grandchildren, Zachary and Sam. Unfortunately, little in these poems leads readers to share the grief Balistreri experienced. “For Sam,” as an example, moves with apparent ease to a didactic conclusion:

In a small town in Wisconsin
among two hundred orange balloons
blooming in the blue sky-field
like Monet’s Poppies
who is to say
Sam is not present? Or that life
is mortal because the form is final?
Or that the sky, alive with orange,
is not the laughter of a child
clapping his hands
in delight? (47)

Balistreri tends to end her poems about loss with predictable uplift: “a song wafts upward” (55) or “You/were pouring out light” (59). But despite their stereotypes, there is promise in these poems, and it lies in the specific details about the lives and deaths of  family members, such as her picture of Balistreri’s granddaughter Abby:

She sits at the old cherry table,
socked feet curled around its center
pedestal just like her father did thirty
ears ago. A bayberry candle flickers,
flames fantasies, fragments
that Abby scratches into form
on a yellow legal pad
She sips hot chocolate, bites
down on a crunchy pretzel twist,
occasionally twines a strand of hair
around a finger, writing, always writing.(“Abby and the Light,” 50)

I can see Abby, who is working through her grief at her brother’s death, and feel her grandmother’s love. Moving in the direction of specific, carefully observed detail, rather than moralizing, would open up for Balestreri a more intimate and immediate path toward her readers.

The best part of the book is the second, which consists of poems about paintings and music. These poems have more success because they start with a specific visual image; Balistreri seems to come into her own in an art museum:

Spilled from her heart, she dips
the brush, big, red, overflowing
in radiance. Powered from her jewel-like
center, she spreads a lush and layered
spirit, petals the canvas in circles, spiraling,
spiraling outward. Encoded in the milky
juice of mystery, she is the dark center
of poppy, her harvest of seed throbbing,
splitting, creating this scarlet portrait,
living outrageously, its opulent past. (“Radiance,” 26)

She’s looking at Georgia O’Keefe’s Poppy, in case you didn’t recognize it. Despite weak terminology like “overflowing in radiance” or “jewel-like,” the breathless, run-on lines do, I think, convey in words what O’Keefe conveys in paint.
Describing paintings, however, is a limited niche. Describing a musical composition, which is more abstract, allows a more interesting conflation of words and sound. Balistreri apparently is an accomplished pianist, and these poems are more convincing. For instance, she knows what she is saying when she describes listening to jazz music:

In a conversation of augmented fifths
and ninths, the friends address me
in safe thirds. I listen more carefully:
Where is the cutting edge,
the forward motion? We converse
in C major, squarely metered. (“At A Jazz Bar In Denver With My Son
And His Friends, I Learn Something New,” 36)

But the poems I like best are those that tell a story of Balistreri as a child first experiencing music and performance:

She sits at the grand piano, black and shiny
with reflected light, bouncing like the Christmas
lights of the aerial bridge. She slips inside
the single line of Chopin’s anguish, her cry
unraveling with him, the final high-pitched
wail, no match for the bottomless depths
of the unrelenting chords, coming in increments,
eddies, echoes. (“Prelude in E Minor,” 34)

The image of Duluth’s lift bridge, the allusions to the waters of Lake Superior, fit in smoothly, unobtrusively. Or she writes of her grandfather playing the violin, “the way Grandpa rounded/the notes like a string of pearls” (p. 37). She doesn’t need her poems’ last lines, like “even today, their [the grandparents’] music is the hearth that warms me” (38). These poems suggest to me that Balistreri does have something to say, and once she finds her authentic voice, her next book may be well worth reading.

Judy Barisonzi  has been a Wisconsin resident since 1966, and she now lives among the lakes and woods of northwest Wisconsin. Semi-retired from teaching English at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, she gives workshops in creative writing and memoir writing, participates in several local writing groups, and publishes poems in local and national magazines.