Keep the Singing by Liza Porter
Published by Finishing Line Press
Review by Meg Files
For years, in college workshops, I’ve admired Liza Porter’s poems and essays for their urgent willingness (need?) not only to face but to interrogate tough and troubling material. “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes,” said filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. In her new chapbook, Keep the Singing, Porter’s eyes look deeply into memory, loss, love, and grief in this elegy to her sister — even if at times those eyes must have been blurred by tears, as mine were.
The short opening poem, “Sister,” introduces the sisters’ intimacy:
Sometimes when I think of O’Keeffe
rusty orange petals
going to you in the night
when the blood came.
It also introduces us to the flower motif running through the book. In “The Vigil,” flowers are placed in her sister’s hands “as she lies on the table / after the women wash her body,” and then on the fourth day, they are gone. In “Sing a song for her leaving,” years later, the poet searches for signs of her sister’s soul in the world without her and tries to convince herself with spring, new grass, and “persimmon blossoms, bright orange / as the sun when it sets …” In “Going Home,” just after the death, the unfairness, the bitterness, and the anger (rage?) drive the imagery:
I remember my grandmother’s sweet peas along the back fence
lavender and pink and white, and the ghost-yellow lawn that never
quite thrived, you could have flamed the whole fucking thing with a
single smoking match.
Then in “Cremation,” this time the flowers are only carved on the pine box and then burned, and the poem cries out the torment of absence, with others’ false comfort when they say,
… she still lives in our hearts they say she’s in the Light they say
in the Light they say in the Light. Fuck the Light.
Near the book’s end, in “Poem for Edie on Thanksgiving,” Porter tries to console herself with an image of blue flowers in her sister’s spirit’s hands and apologizes for not letting her go “as smoke from a fireplace floats into the sky.” But no, she comes to know that she cannot, nor should she, for the work of poetry, the loss and the love require “this eternal questioning.” This mystery. In “The time you have,” the making of art is the way to “withstand / our world’s dive into darkness.”
Of course, it’s not enough for the artist to declare the willingness to look at tough material. It is the careful craft of these poems that lend them their unsentimental grace. It is imagery such as “sudden clouds rubbing the sky with charcoal shadows” in “The Therapist.” It is the symmetry of stanzas. It is the haunting anaphora of “When a sister leaves” in “Elegy in Blue.” It is the small details that are “insignificant unless we listen with more than / our ears” in “The Music.” It is Porter’s attention to details that render the poems so movingly attentive to life.
“A Sort of Sigh” brings the poet a farewell visitation. And it is the final poem in this provocative, evocative elegiac collection that move at last to “the memory of a face / as bright as that moon when darkness falls,” to a fully present sister who “will always track the light.”
Liza Porter’s chapbook Keep the Singing was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2021. Her chapbook Red Stain (Finishing Line Press 2014) was finalist for both the 2015 Arizona New Mexico Book Award and the 2015 WILLA Award (Women Writing the West). Her work is published widely in journals and anthologies. Porter received the 2009 Mary Ann Campau Memorial Poetry Fellowship from the University of Arizona Poetry Center. She was founding director of the Other Voices Women’s Reading Series at Antigone Books in Tucson, Arizona. Three of Porter’s essays have been listed as Notable Essays in Best American Essays. www.lizaporter.com
Title: Keep the Singing
Author: Liza Porter
Publisher: Finishing Line Press, 2021
31 pages, $14.99
Meg Files is the author of the novels Meridian 144 and The Third Law of Motion, Home Is the Hunter and Other Stories, The Love Hunter and Other Poems, Writing What You Know, a book about taking risks with writing, and a poetry chapbook, Lit Blue Sky Falling. Her novella, A Hollow, Muscular Organ, has just been published. She has been a Bread Loaf fellow and the James Thurber Writer-in-Residence at The Ohio State University. Find more at megfiles.com.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.