Coronary Truth, by Diane Elayne Dees
Review by Randal A. Burd, Jr.
I was recently honored to be asked to write a review for Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books, 2020), Diane Elayne Dees’s latest poetry collection. She reviewed my latest collection, Memoirs of a Witness Tree (Kelsay Books, 2020), in kind, a situation we each found a tad awkward. But as we were acquainted with each other’s work beforehand, it was not as awkward as it could have been. This is an honest review, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to write it.
I first encountered Diane through her submissions to the online literary magazine, Sparks of Calliope, where I am editor. Her poem, “Playing Tennis with My Ex,” which is not included in Coronary Review, stood out. It not only demanded to be published, but was one of six poems in our inaugural selection of Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poems have since graced the pages of our lit magazine on multiple occasions.
Diane Elayne Dees is a person with diverse interests and experiences; her writing draws attention to her impressive treasury of knowledge and insights extending from, but not limited to, personal experience and astute observations about the human condition.
Coronary Truth feels like a new journey of self-discovery, and the first poem, “Preparing to See the Shaman,” perfectly describes the beginning of an earnest quest:
Should I fast and pray and drink a lot of water,
or ask for dreams? By nature, I’m a planner,
though I’ve never sought assistance in this manner.
Yet, late in life, I’m still the wounded daughter
who’s missing parts that others take for granted;
specifically, the parts that make me feel
alive and whole, a woman who is real
and not a she-ghost, fragmented and haunted.
In this poem, the speaker presents as a woman who is strong yet vulnerable, wise with years of experiences, yet still seeking answers. I love that the speaker is relatable and approachable while not wallowing in self-pity or despair; this is a positive quest to achieve enlightenment. The speaker demonstrates that one can assertively reflect on unpleasantness in the past while moving forward in a meaningful way. The choice of a shaman for a guide foreshadows the multiple motifs found in this collection, from the archetype of a wounded healer (in this case, someone who has spent much energy “fixing” others but has failed to fully fix their self), to the important roles of nature (i.e., to impart understanding) and the spirit world (i.e., to confront aging, difficult relationships with deceased loved ones, and mortality).
I find the isolation (if not ostracism) of formalists, and even sometimes-formalists, in current literary circles to be profound at times, so encountering rhyme and meter, and even the sonnet form, as an introduction to this collection struck a positive chord with me. Dees has no trouble at all communicating her message through traditional form, which enhances and elevates the language rather than forcefully constricts and simplifies it.
The poem, “My Mother’s Remains,” speaks of the death of a parent with whom the speaker shared a complicated relationship. This poem reminded me of other poems that are similarly themed but tend to portray a pervasive loneliness. Dee’s offers an intricate web of emotions and experiences that bind us in the human condition. These lines feel like a remedy for loneliness:
My mother seemed heavier dead than alive.
Her burned remains, barely fitting
into the sturdy funeral home cardboard box,
occupied a corner space next to the piano,
in the formal dining room near the tiny cabinet
that protects what is left of her crystal.
The ashes, heavy and immobile in death, sit surrounded by man-made objects until the speaker says, “I took most of her to a garden,” where she releases some of them to nurture “an old found rose” and then, “a bit of her I took to London, her home / and tossed it into the Thames” to be carried away by running water. The speaker returns these inanimate remains of the dead to the cyclical motion of the living (the life cycle and the water cycle), which can be viewed as disrupted by the removal from nature of human life. The speaker had the option of storing the ashes to be forever kept with the remaining possessions but chose instead to return them to the motion of nature, and appears to move herself forward through the grieving process and out the other side.
Dees uses the imagery of nature frequently throughout these poems, to effectively illustrate feelings of grief, depression, and anxiety in the face of aging and death. The eponymous poem, “Coronary Truth,” deals with facing mortality when a friend calls the speaker to report having had a heart attack. The speaker’s emotions are described with metaphors, for example, “while a chickadee / checks out an abandoned bluebird / nest.” The poem expresses universal fears:
My friend makes heart attack jokes,
but I know he’s afraid. I am afraid: for him,
and for our hearts, no longer protected
by pure being, but rendered fragile
as hummingbird eggs by a lifetime
of confinement in human cages.
Finding the natural world as a major motif in this collection brings me to my favorite poem in the collection, “Master Class”:
Several decades in, I’ve gathered much advice.
Some of it was good, most of it was useless.
People see us through distorted mirrors,
and send themselves desperate warnings
in the guise of helpful suggestions. Most of what
I learned came from other sources—the cats
who taught me how to work a room, how to pose,
how to die. From the houseplants, I’ve learned
to quietly drop leaves when in distress, cut back
when I’m diseased, and purify surroundings simply
The poem continues to describe lessons “learned in the garden,” profound insights gathered from a lifetime of experience. Throughout these poems, nature faces off against the worst of the human psyche: anxiety and fear, depression and despair. There is comfort in the fact that time and time again, nature provides answers even when the question may not be perfectly clear. Like Henry David Thoreau, Dees looks to nature for answers and is richly rewarded for the effort.
I admire the way Dees presents relatable human emotions in Coronary Truth, including universally experienced fears and misgivings, as seen through the eyes of a strong yet vulnerable speaker. The wounded healer who shares this quest with her readers does not only provide the solidarity of shared pain, but also guides kindred souls on a worthwhile journey of hope and restoration.
Diane Elayne Dees’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies, and she is the author of the forthcoming chapbook, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died. Diane lives in Covington, Louisiana and also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is: Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.
Randal A. Burd, Jr. is an educator and the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, Sparks of Calliope. His poetry has received multiple awards and has been featured in numerous literary journals, both online and in print. Randal’s 2nd poetry book, Memoirs of a Witness Tree, is now available from Kelsay Books and on Amazon.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.