Catherine Greenwood opens her collection of The Lost Letters with the energetic and musically driven “Monk Love Blues.” As my heart and mouth sang these words, which reminded me of poems from the great Langston Hughes mixed with Maya Angelou, I wondered if the collection could live up to its promising start. Greenwood does not disappoint—from start to finish, this beautifully crafted song soars.
Although Greenwood delights readers with her well-read nods to literary giants, her innovative work clearly demonstrates her authentic and powerful voice. Frequently she delves deeply into the insect, rodent and reptile community. Two of my favorite examples of the unique voice and soft song she gives to nonhumans can be heard in the “The Natural History of the Hamster”:
A minimalist, without stuttering
she utters her one-word poems—kernel,
liquid, snooze—just once
before scratching them in sand
in a delicate script read only by rain
erasing her small hand.
and in “Sow’s Ears”:
Articulate as arrowheads the ears
piled in a bulk-aisle bin like a mound
of dead leaves rustle imperceptibly
when touched. Slightly greasy, stiff
triangular scraps of improperly cured
vellum, amber leather that smells a bit
of old baseball mitt.
Greenwood periodically tucks some more experimental poems within this collection. Her fragment poems, being arguably the most experimental, on surface seemingly lack her poetry’s usual depth, but then slowly, almost without warning, the hidden layers reveal themselves as readers dig deeper. In some of her experimental poems, readers could play with reading horizontally and also vertically to uncover new meanings.
Greenwood pushes metaphor far beyond expectation and creates multiple meanings regularly throughout this book. A beautiful example of this comes from the poem “Dusk,” which ends with the following lines:
The faded signs posted on the fence
read Danger: Thin Ice. All summer long
I’ve been following your trail of evasions
like some scavenger of discarded butts,
gleaning whatever unfiltered
tip of suggestion has been
touched by your lips
then stubbed out. Skating a line
and insight. I really don’t want
to break through.
Similarly, Greenwood also writes the bare bones of a moment to unveil the bigger picture, such as in “Company Town”:
They watch their team tank
in the playoffs. A stripper grinds
the pole deeper into unplanned
obsolescence, her mechanistic
scissor kicks barely raising
a sweat on their beer glasses
and failing to jump-start
the local economy.
Greenwood continues these types of strong, stark realizations in her poem “Charity.” In this heart-wrenching poem, she recognizes a childhood acquaintance in a down on his luck, potentially homeless customer looking for a coat and recalls their assigned roles in an elementary school play. She compassionately chooses to not embarrass her former classmate with this revelation, because she “wished him luck, but didn’t speak his name.” A recollection which lives only in the poem and in her head.
Most of these examples provided are all ancillary to the central theme of Greenwood’s work The Lost Letters, which is inspired by the forbidden love and letters shared between Abelard and Heloise. In Greenwood’s notes, she provides backstory for the ill-fated twelfth century lovers. Abelard was the teacher of Heloise. They had a son and a secret marriage; however, they suffered severely for their love. Abelard was castrated and Heloise was forced to join a convent. Although the complete backstory of Heloise and Abelard adds a heavier weight of meaning on the poems inspired by their letters, Greenwood’s version of their song captivates as a stand-alone art.