Monday, January 9, 2012

Surface Effects in Winter Wind, poetry by Tobi Cogswell

"Where kisses are given
and kisses received,
the charted course of
coffee and the smell
of jasmine outside
sweet as gold."

---from "This Kitchen"

Real people inhabit the world of Tobi Cogswell's poems in her collection, "Surface Effects in Winter Wind"---they breathe, eat, and sleep in a dreamy reality made beautiful by lovely word choices and unique images.  I loved the sense of life that the poems contain.  Not always happy life, but a life that is never lived with reluctance.

The most revealing is "Family Portrait," where Cogswell begins with the flat image of a staged family portrait: "They are frozen in time, not like the peeling wallpaper behind them, ticking off the years with nonchalant carelessness."  But she doesn't leave it there, in the place where "affection is not present."  Instead, she reveals what is happening off-camera and how the family history goes far deeper than the surface picture.  They are examined in past, present, and future, revealing that while "they are clean, stiff, poor and worn as the shirts", their future holds a certain stability made apparent in the sauce "always on the stove, the smiles always just out of reach".  In just a few verses, she's recreated their legacy and proved to be far more accurate than any superficial portrait could ever display.

The subject of family comes up often in her verses, such as when a generous tip becomes an emblem of "a good kitchen table with smiles, a pinch or two and misbehaving" in "Saturday at the Farmer's Market".  This poem journeys from the noisy market to a private room, capturing the sounds that start with a crowd full of noise that decreases incrementally until the last stanza is simply a whisper. She contrasts dandelions with roses, talks of music and avocados, and reveals a core of affection that travels the entire route.

"The Boy at Cannon Beach" is probably my favorite, simply for the images of a foggy California beach, with a sky like a "sodden marshmallow".  In it, a solitary boy, lost in thought, explores the beach in that singular way that can never be explained; a stream of consciousness that can be imagined but never shared or understood.  He examines "the hands that will save him, his own private clock in his own human time". As he continues, "damp footprints remind him and everyone that we love the best we can and then we're gone". The universal nature of the sea, the way it invites somber reflection and daydreams, seems to contrast with the what we may imagine as immature-the nature of a child-leaving us with a complicated depiction of age and time.  And given that the image is one of quiet, it's only afterwards that you realize she never actually uses the words "silence", "quiet", or "alone".  It's all inferred, not by synonyms but by images. 

The entire collection features a thread of romance that appears as a confident assurance of loyal companionship.  A hasty gambler, an angry waitress, and images of bacon make surprising appearances in poems that never feel too precious or aloof, but explored with warmth.

Special thanks to Kindred Spirit Press for the Review Copy.

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