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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Little Terrarium,’ poems by Hannah Fries, clear-eyed and gleaming

Hannah Fries, former poetry editor of Orion magazine in Great Barrington, is the first Berkshire author to be published by Hedgerow Books, an imprint of Levellers Press in Amherst. She will be reading at The Bookstore in Lenox at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9.

In one poem in her debut collection Little Terrarium, Hannah Fries imagines “slipping through / some thin place into layers / of hidden worlds. No one ever believes you / when you come back from such a place,” she writes.

But Fries, in these lyrical, graceful poems, is adept at digging things up from unseen worlds and presenting them to us, gleaming, in a voice that is clear-eyed and brimming. Hannah Fries, the former poetry editor of Orion magazine in Great Barrington, is the first Berkshire author to be published by Hedgerow Books, an imprint of Levellers Press in Amherst. Little Terrarium came out last month.=

Fries slips into an array of worlds both curious and profound, populated by orchids, seashells, bloodworms, a “tiny unbelievable frog,” by deserts, ribs, and stigmata; plants, seeds, and soil. We have junkyards, lovemaking, a “divvied-up saint,” and Eurydice expiring of her snakebite, all in a single poem.

The generic title of the first section, “Among the Ruins,” doesn’t do justice to the fresh take of these poems, nor are they entirely ruinous: reading them feels like teetering on the fragile edge between worlds; between dark and light, rapture and undoing. “There is no good reason / why any of this should be,” she writes.

In the arresting, climactic poem “Potatoes,” Fries begins, “Maggie is telling me about her past lives / that burst through the surface of her days / like fish from a clear pond.” Though the speaker wants to drag her back to “where [they] are still kneeling in the dirt,” digging potatoes, Maggie keeps slipping into other worlds: “Her body aches with another’s beating.”

Fries shows us “pale cloistered things / underground” that are “accustomed / to beating against the dark,” albatross chicks undone by plastic, a girl who “might turn / inside-out, a shiny open tulip.” Reading these poems is like being wrenched from one’s element, like the potatoes “[wrenched] from their dark loamy beds” or the house plant torn from the light and stuck in the closet because, says the plant, “The man at the nursery told you / I could live in a closet….he didn’t think you’d try it.”

There is a sense of preparation and experiment, of peering into the dark of what could happen: Eurydice glimpsing “in the swelling holes / a vision of everything to come.” Seeds “dreaming of dampness” in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, “a promise for the next world” because “sometimes famine comes that fast.”

This poem plays off another, in the voice of Noah’s wife, whose efforts also turn toward saving seeds: “a dozen flowers / in the cuff of my sleeve,” a “cherry stone beneath my tongue.” Biblical motifs and voices carry throughout Little Terrarium, and seem to create a fitting parallel to our own time of ecological reckoning, a sense that in this time of uncertainty we might need to summon the miracles of old, “to stop the earth from tipping.”

“Naming the Trees,” in which the speaker is trying to identify the early spring trees using “only the texture of bark,” might remind one of Adam and Eve’s naming, however, the context is more sober. The trees were “logged, burned,” but “marched back anyway.” By naming them, the speaker is “unlearning forgetfulness.” There is plenty of resilience and precarious beauty amid Fries’s ruins. Plants move toward light. A seashell could be broken or “translucent, filled / with your palm’s pink light.”

After the splayed-open intensity of this first part of the book, a section of ekphrastic poems inspired by several ocean paintings of Winslow Homer provides a soft interlude. The paintings themselves are replicated in color, too, opposite each poem. These poems are perhaps not as probing as the others, but they subtly meditate on the details of these paintings and the artist’s vision. With each poem written in fourteen lines, the language is sleek and fresh as always. Crows are a “jeer of black wings,” a ship in the distance a “lost ghost of comfort.”

Fries somehow makes the stuff of Homer’s paintings — churning seas, precarious boats and people in need of rescue — feel like a peaceful counterpoint, although, upon deeper reflection, these images could certainly compliment the unsettled, shifting feel in the rest of the book.

By the final section, “Metamorphoses,” the mood has lifted somewhat. Fries continues with both a loftiness of spirit and an earthiness, as encapsulated in the stunning instructional poem, “Recipe for Resurrection,” whose list of “ingredients” merges the spiritual with the earthly: “water / from the River Jordan, / from the Mississippi,” water turned into wine, “snake skin, starfish arm,” “fog from the valley bottom.”

Reading this collection, I felt things dislodge and open within me, which is what good poetry should do. Throughout, the language shines with clarity and simple exuberance. Take the end of “The Wedding at Cana,” for instance: “open / wide the door, call in / the outside stranger. /Wind here. Wine. / Something to make us quiver.”

Hannah Fries is reading Friday, December 9 at The Bookstore in Lenox, at 5:30 p.m.

 

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