THE ELEPHANT HOUSE by CLAUDIA CARLSONLAUREL JOHNSON Reviews
The Elephant House by Claudia Carlson
(Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, N.Y., 2007)
Critics have described Claudia Carlson's debut collection of poetry as "witty, powerful, playful, inventive, and surprising." Such raves come as no surprise because her history as wordsmith is impressive, and she inherited such gifts as the daughter of poet Helen Z. Carlson. She remembers her mother in several poems. These poetic "pansies to Valhalla" were among Claudia Carlson's most powerful memories. She skillfully shares her past and present, her hopes and sorrows, and the small details that bring color and depth to every life.
In "Leaving Your Toys to the Dogs" she abandons her toys and a wobbly perambulator while being chased and taunted by other children. She returns the next day to find her toys torn to shreds. A child's fear, and understanding beyond her years, come alive in this poem:
I saw them coming,
shadows on the edge,
the ones that hated
my voice, my mother, our wrongness.
* * *
I kept close the cruel satisfaction
of seeing the worst made visible.
A visit with her grandfather to the Bronx Zoo is featured in the title poem, "The Elephant House." This is another childhood view of a sad reality, powerfully written in retrospect:
Grandpa George does not remember
things he used to know;
he does not remember how to get
us back to Brooklyn.
Carlson uses humor and whimsy to surprising effect in "Mendel's Garden Pea," in which she speaks for the experimental pea pollinated by the father of genetics:
I'd prefer sex with bee, beetle or breeze.
The monk's stubby fingers clip my stamens and
bruise my blossoms; how could a man who has never
pollinated a woman know the finesse of fertilization?
Petals are the blessed marriage bed!
Instead I suffer this man…
a wilted bud in his brown robe --
In addition to her honesty and straightforward reminiscing, Carlson is a master of metaphor. A menopausal insomniac becomes a "wet plank," a "lightning rod" for hot flashes. A footpath angling between a stone wall and a river becomes "a triangle of rough plenty" for a hungry wild turkey. And -- my favorite -- her mother's folded dissertation is transformed into "…origami trousers / sharp enough to crease the silence."
Experiencing Claudia Carlson's poems is an adventure. She focuses with crystal clarity on her memories, her realities, and shares pieces of herself with readers. My congratulations to her mother for passing on these fine poetic genes, and to Marsh Hawk press for publishing this exceptional debut collection.
Laurel Johnson is a Retired Registered Nurse and the author of four books. She is Senior Reviewer for Midwest Book Review and Review Editor for New Works Review. Her poetry and prose can be found online in various literary e-zines. She lives in Kansas with her husband of forty-plus years.