Postcards from the Lilac City

Postcards from the Lilac City, by Mary Ellen Talley

Review by Sylvia Byrne Pollack

Mary Ellen Talley and I have attended many of the same workshops over the past decade, and I was already familiar with her work when I learned of the publication of her chapbook, Postcards from the Lilac City (Finishing Line Press, 2021).  I’ve heard her describe this chapbook as “nostalgia-based,” but if nostalgia/memory is the seed from which this collection of poems sprouted and thrived, then I say keep on tending this tree. The fruit is delicious.

I also was drawn to this book because my mother loved lilacs. When I was growing up in Western New York, we drove to Rochester, NY each spring to the Lilac Festival in Highland Park. That park was the source of the lilacs that now flourish in Talley’s birthplace of Spokane!

Postcards from the Lilac City is an homage to place and era. However, it is not limited to Spokane, WA, known officially as The Lilac City, or to Talley’s school years. There’s a wide range of topics, from eating yak butter while traveling to baking shamrock cookies for the family.

The book is prefaced with a poem describing Pan’s infatuation with the wood nymph, Syringa, whose name is the genus name for lilacs. Three sections follow: “Bike Riding Before Helmets,” “Spokane Postcards,” and “After Vietnam.”

“Bike Riding Before Helmets” focuses on the poet’s early life. In “End of the Trolley Park,” we encounter the carousel where her parents first met. Strong sounds and dense details such as “two Chinese dragon benches / breathe fire” enhance the visual effects. They pick up the reader, carry us to another time, but by the end of the first section of the poem “The stallions are sleeping” and “The cemeteries are full / of riders.” The rebirth of the carousel in 1975, is told in declarative voice, rich with physical and emotional details, “as memories glisten spinning counterclockwise.”

The memories are mixed. For example, there is the contrast of a bomb shelter vs. the protection provided by the presence of the Poor Clare Monastery in “faith in the lilac city” –with the all lowercase title adding an ironic twist. A sometimes-troubled relationship with her father resolves into understanding in “As I Pursue You”:

what I most recall is your steady hand
grasping the back of my bicycle

and running beside me until I could not fall.

Talley uses various poetic forms—even a duplex. In a Jericho Brown-inspired poem, “Duplex: We Had a Real Fred and Ethel in the Lilac City,” we meet Talley’s parents, the real Fred and Ethel, to whom the book is dedicated.

The final two poems recounting the speaker’s childhood relive teenage years. A Stone Man on a festival float brims with not-so-latent adolescent sexuality. My favorite of this group is “Butterfly” which captures teenage brio in the speaker’s casual description of herself:

I, in my herringbone pleated skirt,
blue anklets and white Peter Pan collar,
history and French books tossed in the back seat.

The poem includes the maneuvers required to start her hand-me-down car: opening the hood, flipping up the butterfly hinge, getting into the car to turn on the ignition, getting back out to flip down the butterfly, then idling in PARK while listening to the radio and watching her classmates head off to the bus. She then has an hour to spend with her boyfriend under a lilac (where else?) before picking up her mother. So much of a teenage life is captured in 34 lines.

The poems in “Spokane Postcards” contain the eponymous postcard poems. The first stanza of each is a description of place, the postcard image, followed by a message, generally from Mary Ellen but sometimes from her grandma. They have the feel of a flipped over haibun.  The descriptions include place, season and senses. The messages use the casual voice of postcards to family and friends.

“Shadle Park” extends the teenage romancing of “Butterfly” with brief declarative and imperative lines: “Kiss the space between his teeth.” And, later, skin evokes the omnipresent lilacs:

pull petal soft sheer layers
from burnt skin.
Drop it all on an ant hill.

Probably the funniest line in the book is in the poem “Wandemere” in a message to a friend about experiences while traveling in Asia: “I am still so Spokane.”

The final section, “After Vietnam,” includes poems of marriage and maturity.  In “The Things We Carry,” memorable lines, such as “you and I carried desire / like youth’s cranking jump rope” are juxtaposed with dense descriptive passages. Later in “Fabric of Worry,” we find Talley’s judicious use of white space.

An homage to Gertrude Stein, “Occupation of Lilacs,” overwhelms the senses with the sight and smell of lilacs, in true Stein fashion. The lilting “Prism” delights with its nursery rhyme rhythms and nonsense, e.g., “Old onions cry out once pumpkin seeds twinkle.”

The poem, “Since you ask how do we love a sibling (enough)” uses a clever device. Lines are divided into two columns and lines in the right hand column in each stanza begin successively with H,E,L,I,X. The poem further explores and pulls together family stories we heard about earlier in the book. It is a moving tribute to family and the DNA ties that bind.

In the final poem, Talley considers “the movie of my life” in a taut, beautiful series of images of a tapestry,

ripped
in those years of hanging
beside a stone staircase.

There is much to savor in this eclectic collection of poems. Talley takes us on a carousel ride through time and space and in her quiet voice returns us a little more grounded, more appreciative of family, more aware of the beauty that leavens life.


Mary Ellen Talley was born and raised in Spokane, Washington, the Lilac City, and then migrated to Seattle where she and her husband raised their two children. She earned degrees at the University of Washington and worked for many years as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) in Seattle area public schools. Her poems have been published in numerous journals including Raven Chronicles, Banshee, What Rough Beast, Flatbush Review, and Ekphrastic Review, as well as in six anthologies, among which are All We Can Hold and Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace. Her poetry has received two Pushcart Nominations. She reviews for several journals including Compulsive Reader and Asheville Poetry Review.



Title: Postcards from the Lilac City
Author: Mary Ellen Talley
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Price: $14.99
ISBN: 978-1-64662-317-4



Sylvia Byrne Pollack, a scientist turned poet, has published in Floating Bridge ReviewCrab Creek Review and Clover, among other print and online journals. A two-time Pushcart nominee, she won the 2013 Mason’s Road Literary Award, was a 2019 Jack Straw Writer and will be a 2021 Mineral School Resident. Her debut full-length collection Risking It is published by Red Mountain Press (2021.)



Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Jackpot

Jackpot, Jeanne Morel

Review and Interview by Mary Ellen Talley

Jeanne Morel’s second chapbook, Jackpot (Bottlecap Press, 2020), travels within a map of language and place. With mentions of North America, Parisian fountains, and the Mekong River in the rainy season in the first poem, “Birthday Parties are Pluperfect,” I knew I was in for an exploration of semantics and quotidian nostalgia.

For instance, which meaning of “pluperfect” is Morel addressing? If birthday parties are pluperfect, are such annual celebrations a grammatical reference to the past perfect tense, or should we choose the other meaning—that such celebrations are more than perfect? Morel presents an ambiguous choice. In several poems, Morel lists options for possible word meanings for readers to ponder. Many poems, adjacent or elsewhere, resonate with one another and it was fun to find and return to recurring details.

Morel does not plunge head-on into serious topics; she jumps in and out to surprise and delight, then moves onward. With sardonic vernacular, the first poem informs: “Upstream is where the shit begins.” The poem ends tongue-in-cheek:

Lordy, what an outfit
                        If you wear that, no one will take you seriously
                                    Not this Christmas

Not the day after that either
                        & out of the sky dropped a billion butterflies!
            Shimmering like olive trees, only orange and purple –

Take this to the boss
                        and best of luck

This chapbook’s thirty pages of inventive grammar in experimental free verse include the incidental as well as the substantive. We come across maps, rats, insects, Winnie-the-Pooh, planets, storage containers, and ice cubes, as well as politics, planets, nuclear bomb testing, astronomy, geometry, logic, and bits of colloquialisms. A bartender shows up as insects crawl over the fence in “Longer than the Wrong Road,”

The saloon doors slap behind me.
Butterflies flood the 
underworld. Where do you come

in?

In a recent conversation, Jeanne shared that “Many of my poems involve movement – and/or lack of movement. Many, like the first poem, collage multiple locations and times. I’m intrigued by what Kwame Dawes calls ‘the tension between the here and the there’ […] and the collage of memories.”

Morel is not a poet of abstract language, metaphor, or message. “I don’t think about images,” she said. “I think of gathering […] I follow sound. I don’t write into ideas or messages.”

Morel’s poems are not linear. Her lines hop, skip, and jump thematically but also remain circular as threads return and reverberate throughout. The box-contained poem “Splintering Tiny Soup Bowls Up Into the Sky,” opens up “Grounded in a place you can’t see,” like nested “Russian dolls comet-ing / across the sky.” As Morel goes about her poetic gatherings, she weaves in tidbits of information, such as “Prussian Blue, the color invented by / accident.”

Regarding poets important to her, Morel said, “I go to Marvin Bell for inspiration. He said art is a way of life, not a career. He advised students to read poets who don’t write the way they do. Some of my favorite poets are Richard Hugo and Philip Levine, even though my poetry isn’t anything like theirs.”

Several poems touch upon serious concerns, such as the U.S. nuclear testing in 1962 in “A-Bombs Over Nevada” or the reactions of an Iraq War veteran in “Given the Conditions.” Morel’s touch is light while offering information, insight, and juxtaposition. For example, she mixes “lullaby sun” with the  “slung fences” of the WWII internment camp in the sonically lovely poem, “Purple Over Tule Lake.”

Although these poems are not personal, the reader may infer snippets about the speaker/poet with her references to a student visiting during office hours, yellow roses outside a kitchen window, or the presence of a cat. In “An Unsuitable Home for a Cat,” Morel refers to the serious issue of nuclear waste at Hanford, Washington:

Richland wives in glasses
including Marge

Oh, don’t worry

about that – my mother in
law cracked

when I fretted
about radiation wafting

over after Fukushima

My buddy cat black
dances

In “The Next Day I Was Almost Done with Dinner When a Student Came & Pulled Up a Chair,” Morel writes,

Sounds like a circus spectacle – a jester jostling for power in the aisle
of the commuter bus. The medium is the message; the freeway the periphery; the bleats a form of saccharine.

In “Map,” Morel parses lists of words for parts of speech and idioms. She also throws in an assignment, as “Write a letter to a relative explaining the verb – to map. Mail it / to the president .” Assignments likely come naturally to her. Although she has been involved in refugee and resettlement work, she presently teaches as an adjunct professor at Seattle Central College and Bellevue College in Washington state. When asked about the impact of her teaching, Morel said, “My writing helps my teaching. It feeds my teaching.”

Few of Morel’s poems stay within the justified left. The margins meander in sentences or phrases, sometimes ending a short line with an article, which tends to create a pause. In more conventional poems, I might find this distracting, but distraction is part of experimental poetry, as it is in life. She also uses numbers, dashes, bullets, brackets, slashes, & ampersands and employs random segues, spare punctuation and semantic word play, often eschewing capitals or periods. An example of this is found in “Nobody Cares What Color My Coat is.” The poem begins with image and map:

I wrap myself in an alphabet for stormy
weather

& head across the pass     map-less & w/o a hat
and yet some days I can’t

leave the house unless I’m dressed     in blue jeans, a black t-shirt,
You have too many consonants & vowels in your name

[the real estate woman smirked

Morel addresses issues of our current situation in “Crawl City,”

When you are obsessed is no
time for pleasantries

the television of all night
convenience shops

a monitor monitoring our every move
above the cash register

while rats race labyrinths
/ in the space between

your hairline and your fine plucked
brows

This chapbook is a tall refreshing glass of water. Or perhaps a glass of wine? The title poem (also the last poem), “Jackpot,” presents “salmon, sagebrush // & Syrah.” There’s honest humor: “The only major / state of grace ka-ching / ka-ching.”

I noticed the circular juxtaposition with the first and last poems. The first poem, “Birthday Parties are Pluperfect,” begins with ascent,

Why did the balloon float over the fence? /
wind – helium & a string let loose –
All the fences in North America are at right angles with one another.

Then “Jackpot,” ends with descent:

Perchance
your lucky

number–drop a deep
blue blossom
on the carpet swirl/ watch
it fall
a stranger

Morel seems to be telling us that life is both a gamble and a roller coaster. She presents numbers and mathematics which give us odds that are less than we might predict. Perhaps we’re just in it for the ride. Sometimes we hit the “Jackpot!”

Jeanne Morel is the author of two chapbooks, Jackpot (Bottlecap Press) and That Crossing Is Not Automatic (Tarpaulin Sky Press). She holds an MFA from Pacific University and has been nominated for a Pushcart in both poetry and fiction. Her poetry has been published in great weather for MEDIAPhantom Drift, Dunes Review, and other journals. She lives in Seattle where she teaches writing and is a gallery guide at the Frye Art Museum.

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 forthcoming chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” will be published by Finishing Line Press.

Title: Jackpot
Author: Jeanne Morel
Publisher: Bottlecap Press
Purchase at Bottlecap Press: $10


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.