issue 34 > nonfiction > israel
Elizabeth J. Coleman
New York, NY: Spuyten Duyvil Press,Review by Sharon Israel
2014. 104 pp.
Proof, Elizabeth J. Coleman’s first book-length collection of poems, proves she is a conjurer of emotion through her surprising language and imagery, as well as her passionate connection between the personal and universal.
New York, past and present, looms large in many of Coleman’s poems. In “The Subway Car,” Coleman begins with an almost casual reference to a successful surgery that leaves her with a disturbing sense of loss. She telescopes immediately to a far away scene
In the Serengeti, a mother baboon sat on a rock
under an acacia tree, held her infant in her arms…
Then back again to New York
In a subway car strewn with papers, guitar
strapped on like a child riding piggy back
on her way to playing for patients in the hospital where she once was treated. Here the children she once carried have been transformed into her guitar – adding a lovely and odd metaphoric resonance to the poem. Coleman shifts again from the African bush to subway acrobats, painting a convincing portrait of one daydreaming in the subway, in spontaneous shift from present to past, between two continents.
Proof is consistently charged with the unexpected. In “Nine Months,” Coleman describes giving birth to her own mother, a complicated concept, fraught with discomfort, but with language that conveys a strange joy and compassion:
Sometimes in a dream
I give birth to you, vodka in hand,
laugh high like the clink of glasses
In her poem “Illumination” Coleman talks of art as light itself (she did the cover art for Proof) and segues delightfully to describing her daughter as a self-created masterpiece:
…So too, really to see your child
who cleverly plucked some features from you
and some from your husband to create her own
astonishing face, you must look
at the way light falls on those green eyes.
Coleman infuses many of her poems with an easy Eastern mindfulness, from the first poem in the collection, “Bamboo in the Garden to her title poem "Proof" which opens with Coleman’s belief that:
The best proof I’ve seen that God exists
is found on the face of sand dollars, echinoid fish.
She goes on to describe a picture of her children on the beach, in the surf and gives the reader this startling line, a direct reference to “The Wave” by Hokusai. :
White caps from a Japanese print thunder out of the sea
The wave is poised to crash, with Mt. Fuji, serene and small in the distance. Motion and stillness collide and potential destruction looms, an ideal metaphor and visual anchor for the tug Coleman feels between protecting her children and letting them go. In fact, the entire poem feels like a wave, cleverly and beautifully echoed in the rhythm of her pantoum, ending in this final proof:
My daughter’s hair flows, undulating sea creature;
my son follows, sweat pants billowing,
I want them to break away, dash to the sea.
The best proof-my children right behind me.
Like all successful poetry collections, Coleman’s Proof has a singular compelling resonance that lures the reader through each poem and into the next. The poet knows how to transform the ordinary into the strange: A deli “blooms in the streets of New York” and a smudged Styrofoam coffee cup extended for a handout becomes the begging bowl of a Buddhist monk. These bright gifts transfix with unusually lucid language that never veers into the commonplace. Coleman’s Proof is a very good read, yet so much more.