How Shadows Are Bundled is a generous collection of more than seventy poems. In reading it I was often reminded of Keats—not the Keats of the poems, with their luxuriant, often opulent, structures and language, but the Keats of the letters, with their stoicism, generosity, humor, and clear-eyed understanding. Of particular relevance is Keats’s imperative in a letter of 1819, written to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, “Call the world if you please the vale of Soul-making.”
Keats went on to make a distinction between the “Intelligence,” with which humans are born, and the “Soul,” which is not innate but needs to be acquired. He then asks, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?” This is not to say that How Shadows Are Bundled is a book immersed in pains and troubles, although pains and troubles are present, as they must be in any book of mature perception; rather, it is to say that the poems of this book concern themselves frequently with the testings and experiences that lead to spiritual growth and understanding, and, yes, to the development of a Soul.
To be sure, there are poems in How Shadows Are Bundled of loss, of depression and despair, of devastating illness, of separation, of the failures of hope, and so on; but that is not the end. Anne Valley-Fox is far from being an optimist; she knows better than that. Rather, she is best described as a gleaner. From an apparently barren field she knows how to find what is available for nurture and sustenance. For example, in the poem “Chris’s Tresses,” the subject, a young woman named Chris, had grown her hair from age ten until it reached to her knees; and then she lost it all to cancer and chemotherapy. Her response? “Chris laughs with tears in her eyes. ‘ Okay, I’ll be bald / as a baby’s ass—but with any luck, I’ll live.” As the poet writes in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Sometimes you have to put your faith in whatever / shows up....”
In their stoic ways, the poems of How Shadows Are Bundled are works of fortitude. This is how it is, they suggest. This is life, often difficult, often demanding, often testing whatever resources we may have. Accept the reality. Move on. To protest is useless. Possibilities remain. Some closing lines: “”A breakthrough may still be possible” (“Three Martinis”); “It may be the universe loves you” (“Hypothesis”); and
We’re stunned to stunned to remember
our forfeited souls—
how bold and luminous they once were,
vials for pouring light. (“A Place in the Desert”}
Where there is remembrance there may be recovery. All is not lost; and the fact is that loss may lead to gain. Often one must move through loss in order to advance the development of Soul.
The language of these poems matches their themes. This is a voice that can be trusted: it would speak with us honestly in a comprehensible diction: not “plain,” exactly, but recognizably close to spoken language. The voice is not trying to impress; rather, it is in search of understanding, and it is trying to make itself clear in order that the reader may join in the search. Still, it must be admitted that some poems in How Shadows Are Bundled make conspicuous demands on their readers. There are many that use no punctuation; lines come as fragments of consciousness, scraps of perception without apparent continuity. At times it seems that any ornamentations, including punctuation, would be seen as impediments in the quest that the poems pursue. The result is that readers must participate actively in the making of the poem—by no means a necessarily bad requirement—and work toward assembling the pieces into a coherent whole (as, in fact, the poet is trying to do). Consider, for example, “The Falls”:
Not visible yet but you can hear them
fisted into themselves around the bend
cliff-clawed turbulence spitting mist
the clay muscles around your mouth
and how the mouth would feel if the teeth
were yanked from our head
and how a girl in white strides in a park
her loose limbs permitting
and old men molded to benches
ogle the girls it’s their masculine right
and all they can do
and how sometimes you summon a word
easy as calling a child to supper
(plucked corn, the berries of summer)
you call but he doesn’t come
The poem displays an agile mind swiftly moving; and it requires that the reader make an effort to establish some form of coherence. Other poems in the book are similarly challenging.
On the other hand, there are many poems in How Shadows Are Bundled of appealing lucidity, such as the delightful “Mazurka:”
Early morning snow flurry melts
within an hour.
During which, Dream Queen, what did you achieve?
I listened to a crow’s mazurka
on a pebble roof.
Gently self-mocking (“Dream Queen”?), the poem is luminous in its apprehension, comparable to an earlier snow/crow poem, Robert Frost’s “A Dust of Snow.” Both in some sense deal with redeeming—or, perhaps the same thing, discovering—the time, the day, the hour, the moment. In one form or another, the theme occurs frequently in How Shadows Are Bundled, as in, for example, the lucid and moving “Things We Can Do.” A woman, dying of cancer, wishes for one last visit to warmth, and sun, and sea. The speaker knows what “fantastically” she would do—drive the woman to such a land as she desires. But one cannot act according to claims of fantasy. The poem concludes:
Here, the trees are filling with snow.
Asian tsunamis open their mouths and swallow the world.
You blow on my fingers to warm them. There are
tiny, perfect things we can do.
So it is. One can do what is possible. No promises, no illusions.
Among the poems that stand as examples of clarity is the admirable “Things That Want to Be Counted”:
Someone on earth is counting—
rooms in a honeycomb,
snow geese descending, wild
lilies, grain spilled from a bushel basket,
bubbles rising from a blue hole.
Those who are hungry get up in the dark.
Their job is to count
sticks of kindling, cups of milk,
empty beds or racks of shoes,
newspapers in the dwindling stack,
how many fish in the bottom of the boat.
The concrete specificity of “Things That Want to Be Counted” is both eloquent and evocative. In few words, the concise details create a situation and tell a story. Note the movement from large to small. That, in itself, says much, as does the poem, which displays in miniature the author’s craft and caring.