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In the Carnival of Breathing

Lisa Fay Coutley’s most recent chapbook highlights numerous poems published in an array of literary magazines. Within each poem, the ideas are very fragmented; however, Coutley weaves them together so that each idea feeds from the one that precedes it. While there may be an overall theme, no poem constricts to one image; instead, she creates a collage of images to support a theme. For example, in her poem “After the Fire”:

Lisa Fay Coutley’s most recent chapbook highlights numerous poems published in an array of literary magazines. Within each poem, the ideas are very fragmented; however, Coutley weaves them together so that each idea feeds from the one that precedes it. While there may be an overall theme, no poem constricts to one image; instead, she creates a collage of images to support a theme. For example, in her poem “After the Fire”:

He staples his sketches
to telephone poles. At busy intersections,
he clutches his jar of pennies. The phone

call we miss every day is probably God,
who refuses to leave a voicemail, to take
a small reward. My son is searching for air

underwater, for stars on the soles of his feet,
for the bird that will eat from his open palm.

Without any description of clothing, hair style, ethnicity, etc., the reader is able to picture this man stapling his pieces of paper up on the telephone poles without any struggle. The magic of Coutley’s poetry is that she allows each reader to have a unique experience with her words. While my man may have clutched a jam jar and yours, an empty Planters can, both are able to experience the same impact and meaning.

Often, her language continues to build throughout the poem, having a snowball effect. By the final lines, the reader is completely enveloped by the poem’s consequence. “Respiration,” which was included in 32 Poems, has this effect. Also, her images are startling:

It ends then, with a fist
in the face, dogpiled men caught
in a promise to neither leave nor love
one another, a fire lit in an airtight vessel
where no one can open the door.

The reader doesn’t just sense the fear or sense the smell of pungent decay, but feels the fear and smells the flesh caught fire. Coutley promises a striking interaction with the text, and she delivers. We, as readers, feel our way through her poetry and try to find our way out—while reading, we forget that the experiences captured on the page do not exist in the real world.

Or do they?

The last poem in the chapbook totally wowed me and I had to read it a few times to absorb all it had to offer. “Barefoot on the Pulpit” is a poem I want to rip out of a book and tape to my wall. It begins:

Backstage, we don’t kiss for an empty auditorium. We kiss
for strangers who meet and unmeet, the way cobble paths
halt just short of stained glass. Who knows why I won’t
let you know me on the porch swing. A flat beer. A story
of a woman confused, then dead, now gone from you.

Coutley knows how to pack a punch. Her language reflects a spider web, meticulously crafted, that traps the reader in her words and imagery. It does not surprise me that In the Carnival of Breathing won the Black River Chapbook Competition; I can’t wait to read more from Coutley.

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