Book Review

A Brief History of Mail by Lisa Vihos. Pebblebook Press, 2011. $12, shipping included 

Poetry readers looking for a rich mix will find it in Lisa Vihos's A Brief History of Mail, Pebblebrook Press (2011), a book striking for its range of subjects and techniques.

This chapbook begins with family history poetry, some tragic, most of it joyful. Writers sometimes milk fare like this for sentimentality, but Vihos uses snapshot moments to recreate authentic portraits, often of people deeply influenced by their ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In "Elizabeth" she deftly details her grandmother's eastern roots, Italian ancestry, and Christianity.

She'd say poice and poiple for purse and purple
and sometimes yous guys and oy vey.
In the photo by the Rambler with grandpa
she flashes her smile, shows off her legs.
She was a bit of a ham my Nana
but read her Bible to finish each day.
She sang Ave Maria and Jesus Loves Me
to herself as she made ravioli.

The second half of this book shifts away from family history to poems with ideas and situations as their core content. Although turning concepts into poetry can be tricky, Vihos is a cagey teacher, anchoring the abstract in particulars. In one poem she puts a conventional paradigm into a human context, turning math lingo on its head in a whimsical fantasy. John Donne, master of the conceit, would have cheered its opening.  

Dear X
Let me be your Y
and wherefore.
Let me be before
and after (a subset
of desire).

Two additional love poems in this part of the book further demonstrate Vihos's intellectual playfulness. "Roger Loves Rachel" is a story set in a railroad yard, with Roger scrawling amorous graffiti on a box-car there. However, did any love-making actually take place? Or not take place there? And did Rachel know that her name would soon be dispatched all over the country, that "she'd travel with him/everywhere indefinitely;/his love, for all the world to see?" This open-ended plotting also serves as a teasing foundation for "The Assistant," whose narrator muses on possible attachment with her boss, as she types what he dictates. At night, she says

I'd lie awake and type your words again,
ever so gently on my skin

stroking that quiet part of me
that would dream of you, of us,

lying together at the bottom of your u,
my questioning fingers seeking out your q.

In the title poem, "A Brief History of Mail," which is about the history of communicating, Vihos traces human interaction through smoke signals, bird call imitations, charred bones as warning messages, the pony express, letter correspondence, and finally computer links. All of this begins and is wrapped up in a conclusion that has charming circularity. It starts with

Once upon a time, there were
smoke signals and bird calls
and charred bones left on mossy

cairns. These early equivalents of
"alert the media" did their best to
convey the ebb and flow

of human endeavor . . . .

and then Vihos rounds out the poem with these thoughts:

 . . . our mail options
have now advanced to texting and tiny tweets,

and so we have returned to the birds.
Sender and receiver beware: burnt bones
crossed on fire pits may not be far behind.

What I like overall in Vihos's work is this willingness to take risks—her courage to explore the possibilities of different kinds of poetry beyond personal history. She’s a writer who likes challenging our imagination, not to mention, in passing, she’s often a sly punster.

I haven't noted Vihos' mastery of prosody, but A Brief History of Mail has excellent sonnets and a polished sestina. She can clearly be a skilled formalist when she wants to. Beginning writers can also gain from observing how well her poems conclude, one more plus for this fine debut publication.

Richard Swanson lives in Madison but gardens at his summer cabin near Muscoda. Fireweed Press published two of his earler works: Men in the Nude in Socks (2006) and Not Quite Eden (2010). He's finishing a chapbook of poems on pop culture.