Poet, Guitarist, Painter: a Review of Elizabeth J. Coleman’s Fifth Generation

by Lee Slonimsky

Elizabeth J. Coleman. The Fifth Generation.  New York, NY.  Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016. 88 pages.

In Elizabeth J. Coleman’s dynamic new collection The Fifth Generation, the author’s spiritual perspective merges with a musical ear and an unerring gift for language to create a highly fulfilling experience for the reader.  And let us not leave out the vivid imagery present in these poems.  The author, a talented painter as well as guitarist (her compelling work graces the front cover), and poet, brings together all her gifts in this 88 page masterpiece.

At a time when American poetry is fragmented into various “schools” within the greater schism between free and formal verse, an underlying theme of acceptance in Coleman’s work is not only refreshingly harmonious, but also a welcome antidote to the narrowness that abounds generally in our culture.  In addition, her sense of the largeness of time, and the perspective it brings, is breathtaking.  A poem early in the book (“On Trying to Tell My Husband Something Important While He Stares at the New York Times on His I-Pad”) includes one of the most memorable lines in the entire collection:

“until only the wind remembers/

And this superb poem does a wonderful job of contrasting the temporal and the immortal, “ancient mountain passes” in line one dexterously highlighting the references to recent and much more recent technology in the title (the newspaper, not as old as we think, and the i-pad).  This 15 line gem has to be read in its entirety to be totally appreciated, but it is a wonderful reflection on the transitoriness of our daily concerns compared to the wind and to the foreverness of a hummingbird.

Personal experience—and the poet has had a lot of diverse ones—and the passage of time join evocatively in a poem like “In the Farmhouse,” with its awesome concluding lines:

“their eyes that glorious
forget-me-not blue that grows riotously on a farm.”

There is no proselytizing in these deeply spiritual poems, instead a powerful reverence for the dramatic history of our physical world which can bring its own kind of solace to challenges like aging and mortality.  Just a few examples:

“Gorillas stay up all night to groom their dead,” (“One Way of Looking at Grace”)
“We come from [the sea]”, (“A Church Funeral”)
“the ancient fish they’ve discovered/that’s sensitive to electricity” (“Belief”)

Quoted above are three slivers of the poet’s vast tree of knowledge, three slivers that emphasize a unity of life well beyond the obvious, the sort of insight that poets have traditionally been cherished for providing.  Coleman’s stunning first collection Proof (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) is even more emphatically “proved” in The Fifth Generation’s display of insight into humanity and nature alike, and the many daily moments in which strangers touch and different people share, moments that will rarely if ever get in a newspaper or onto the news feed of an iphone, but that are the deepest news of life on earth, so many millennia long.

brief disclaimer:  two of my own sonnets appear in this collection, alongside translations by the author