So Many Windows

Wisdom of the Body
by Judith Roche

Review by Lyn Coffin

Black Heron Press, P.O. Box 95676, Seattle, WA 98145

Judith Roche's new collection begins with a poem called, "Drowning in Lake Michigan," of which the initial line reads, "My first memory looks up to sunlight through water." So in her beginning (first poem) is her ending (drowning) is her beginning (first memory), a paradox enriched by the spatial reversal of looking up at sunlight through water. By the time the first poem ends, the reader recognizes the aptness of the book's title: the "wisdom of the body" occurs here in the form of "my back," "my lungs," "my baby toes."

One is also introduced here to what might be called the autobiographical drift of this book, and the conversational tone in which Roche presents arresting observations and intriguing reversals: "You'd think/ It would scare a child, but ever since/ I've leapt to water as my element." There is paradox underlying the simplest of statements: "I don't remember the coy ripple the lake lapped at my baby toes," she tells us, (Who does, then?) stating that she does remember being "at peace with my death."

At the end of "Drowning," Roche gives us a tour de force of imagistic layering, revealing the fact that when she leaps into water, she looks "behind her, to catch a glimpse of the ghost of my forlorn and missing fish tail. . ."

Mindful readers are rewarded in Wisdom of the Body. The book ends, as it began, by talking about tails. In "Tail Pontoum," the final poem of the book, Roche says, "In my next life I want a tail."

A variety of subjects is addressed in Wisdom of the Body. Poems like "Angels" and "Marie Antoinette" or "Mata Hari" address theologically and historically difficult topics with a tone of quiet authority. Angels, we are told, "are not like the saints./ They do not discriminate/ but come to everybody." Marie Antoinette speaks for herself in a pantoum which ends, "I wanted to give them cake for a treat. I did not know about real hunger." Mata Hari tells us of her death, "my last performance-- I had meant to do it with grace. . . They simply waited until I was naked. /Then they shot."

At the beating heart of this packed book are the two title poems- "Wisdom of the Body," and "Credo." At the end of "Wisdom," Roche articulates one aspect of her title: "The gut knows the difference/ between shit and substance." (Notice how Roche takes the dead metaphor of "shit," and brings it back to the literal.)

Over and over, Roche steps forward in oracular decisiveness, but immediately steps back again, gentling her pronouncements, so that they remain in our mind as suggestions or possibilities, not as pontifications carved in stone. At the end of "Credo," we get this call and response, "I believe art saves lives/ And love makes it worth living them./ And that could be the other way around, too."

Wanting to have the same ebb and flow in my review as Roche in her book, I find myself casting about now for possible "negatives." I find it hard to come up with any. As one might expect, I found a poem or two for which I did not care. "Hunger," for example, seemed a paltry leftover of Blake and Yeats: "hunger, blind / gnaws our flesh and leeches/ our bones."

But there are hosts of bright and beautiful poems in this rich and fluid collection; to quote "Rook Chakra Sestina," there are "so many windows we close and open/ and all of it holy."