Passing Through Blue Earth, by Cynthia Neely
Review by Mary Ellen Talley
Caught up in the mishmash of creation, humans and animals arrive on this earth with natural proclivities of caring and of cruelty. Cynthia Neely begins her third book, Passing Through Blue Earth, with the poem “Hunger” which takes on this theme directly. Sometimes a hunger that leads to cruelty takes precedence. Neely is descriptive rather than accusatory when she acknowledges instinctual hungers that lead to cruelty. Stark images arise as we consider the “vultures // whose shadow-wings / mark the earth.” With Neely, vultures could be real or metaphorical. The last lines of the poem foreshadow grief to come in later poems: an “absence hollowed out / from a fullness in my throat.”
In the same poem, Neely’s frequent use of imagery stands out, such as “quills white as rib-bones”; a cougar’s tail “black and shivering”; “stubborn aspen leaves”; and how “ice gnaws the riverbank.” She gives a literary nod to William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” with the creation of what could be an adage, “So much / depends on hunger.”
What a fitting introductory poem to this pocket-sized gem of a book!
Arranged without section breaks, the poems in this chapbook move as a river of connections from words in one poem to similar wording in adjacent verses or poems. Neely finishes two back-to-back poems, “Tonight a Blue Moon Rises” and “Bone is Bone,” mentioning variants of time ticking. Later in the chapbook, we feel there is real and metaphorical “Crazy weather” in “Forecast” with the last lines, “The storming / off. We are altogether too much / weather.” In the next poem, “Home and Here,” Neely writes of fog and place, noting that “These are the places / that pull me by each arm / like quarreling parents.” The connections resonate because they are straightforward and there for the taking. In the end, the speaker reports wandering with the Mother, “over moss and waves / and [I] wonder how I will find my way back.”
Water and grief traverse the long poem “Hopewell Bay” in its thirty-one numbered free verse stanzas. Besides being a writer, Neely is also a noted Washington State painter, so she comes naturally to using color to depict emotion. In #5, she asks, “What if green (blue and yellow) expressed all grief?” Before naming colors, #4 describes how water flows and literally takes on “the color of its surroundings.” Presenting other reflections on the physical properties of water, Neely reminds us that we swim, we float and we are buoyed up in water before birth.
The poem “Hopewell Bay” describes and explores grief. We are given personal narrative verses with Latinate medical vocabulary not typically part of a poem. Whenever Neely does this, she offers enough surrounding information that the reader gets the gist, as in 25: “Dysgerminomas are extremely sensitive to / chemotherapy, as are all fast growing cells.” In #26, Neely adds:
This summer’s in a hurry
moving off on a gust. My only son
wants to swim to Hopewell Bay.
Today. A round trip of a thousand breaths.
Alone. And I don’t want to let him go
though I should know
no rotating prop will dice him up
slice those lovely legs, render him.
He wants this test, his will
against my own. Still
most days I would go
match him stroke for stroke
breathe his breaths if I could,
swallow air for him.
Neely’s use of Latinate words juxtaposes emotion and image with medical complexities that will give rise to grief. Laminaria is a seaweed that has uses both in cancer prevention and terminating a pregnancy. In #2, cysplatinum is “iridescent, lovely and cool as water.” It also triggers “cell death.” It becomes evident why this long series begins with “I fell in love with grief.”
The poem has a universal perspective, but I wondered if it was grounded in the personal, since Neely often writes in first person. A quick search led me to her poem/bio online at “Survivor’s Notebook,” which suggests that this long poem reflects the poet’s experience with ovarian cancer and an associated pregnancy termination.
A lover of the environment who resides in the Cascade foothills and summers on an off-grid Canadian island, Neely excels at using nature metaphors to suggest the human condition, as in, “Some ecosystems have evolved with fire as necessary for / habitat renewal.”
The speaker in the long poem is a mother who has studied grief. In #13, she writes, “There are five stages to grief. Once through each / stage we are ready to let go. / This is myth.” There is the personal in #29, what a mother might have told an unborn child. There is also the sense of an end to grief, “now that I have almost stopped / mourning for what’s been lost.” We note a nod both back to hunger and to Emily Dickinson that arrives in the same verse:
If hope’s a finch
that lightly touches down
and leaves the earth for sky
then grief must be a hungry thing
that suckles and suckles
and leaves its mother dry.
Neely’s long poem satisfies all our senses. Her aural imagery rings true in #14, “Sorrowing I love best. It sings like a / saw – a poor man’s viola.”
Cleverly, we are given an entry to resolution with a poem that acts as a transition to the final poems. In “Hope’s a Transitive Verb” Neely welcomes Emily Dickinson again, as hope becomes a “feathered shaft / air filled wing.”
When we arrive at the next poem, “What This House Knows,” we sense a shift, a door swinging open on a hinge to poems of place and to poems that move toward healing. There is a vacant house to leave, a dwelling that can be an empty house or a metaphor for moving psychologically toward resiliency and/or resolution. Neely has already stated that it is a myth we “let go” of all grief. This poem acts as a hinge poem in the chapbook. The subsequent poems are reflective and move toward hope.
“The Wrecked” continues the poet’s reflection on loss by way of metaphor, “You search for wreckage / then search the wreckage for clues.” In “Since the Return of the Massasauga,” the speaker is more aware of dangers behind her and the possibilities of future pain. But she is determined to move forward, “Give me something / I can face head-on, a black bear in the trail.”
This small book will grow on you. Loss and grief are described briefly and reflected upon. But the book again addresses hope, what Dickinson calls “a the thing with feathers.” After all, hope is another thing we all hunger for.
Who would have suspected that the “Blue Earth” of the title is a town in Minnesota that the poet passed through? The first line of the final poem, “Passing Through,” reminds us that our planet Earth is just another place. Neely has written a linear trajectory reconciling the particular with an existential grief.
This chapbook includes a mother’s worry for the natural and for her personal world. Neely alludes to climate change, aging, and pain while focusing on nature, the personal, and the strong pull of DNA. She admits to worrying about nature and her son. This small book is packed with lyric wisdom and is spoken in the voice of a mother who knows and loves nature. The speaker could be Mother Nature considering her planet as well as a human mother who is programmed to worry about her children.
This poet knows where she has been and where she is going, even as she knows we are mere blips in the currents of time as we respond to our hungers and pains. In her final poem, Cynthia Neely speaks of and to creatures, events, and places that literally and metaphorically become part of a life journey. With reflective precision, the final lines of this final poem hold the key to the book’s title:
this blue planet
this perfect earth
we are all
only passing through
Cynthia Neely is a poet and a painter. She lives with her husband and son up an unmaintained mountain road in the Cascade foothills of North Central Washington and spends her summers on an off-grid island in Georgian Bay, Canada. These places have been indelibly etched into her persona and so into her poetry and paintings. The natural world and her place in it have always been important to her and to her work. When she travels from these areas she invariably heads north. Neely is the 2011 winner of the Hazel Lipa Poetry Chapbook Prize for Broken Water published by Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. Her critical work has appeared in The Writers’ Chronicle, and her poems in numerous print and online journals including Bellevue Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, and Terrain.org, and in several anthologies. Her full-length book of poetry, Flight Path, was published in 2014 as a finalist in the Aldrich Press book contest. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University.
Mary Ellen Talley is a former speech-language pathologist. Her poems have appeared widely in publications including Raven Chronicles, Flatbush Review, and Banshee, as well as in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have received two Pushcart nominations. Book reviews by Talley appear online and in print journals, such as Compulsive Reader, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Sugar House Review and Empty Mirror. Her chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” was published in 2020 by Finishing Line Press.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.