Friday, May 21, 2010

INCREASE, chapbook, by Susan Edwards Richmond

Review of INCREASE, chapbook, by Susan Edwards Richmond, Foothills Publishing, Kanona, New York, 2010, 34 pages, $10

By Barbara Bialick

Many poets would have loved to take on the challenge of writing INCREASE, a historical yet fanciful playbook of poems. The chapbook is written from the point of view of the Harvard, Massachusetts Shaker Community that numbered 200 people in the 1850s, but finally closed in 1920. With information drawn from members’ journals, and the historical buildings in Harvard Shaker Village, Richmond got some of her information through the Fruitlands Museum where she was poet-in-residence in 2007. The remaining Shakers sold their first office building, built in 1794, to Clara Endicott Sears, who moved that building to Fruitlands.

Richmond did a good job of making the celibate put spirited religious group come to life, especially in the section called “fall”. Herself a wife and mother, Richmond could still breathe life into the Shakers’ story—they believed in celibacy, a woman Shaker messiah, withdrawal from the world, and when worshipping ecstatically, they literally shook, danced and marched; hence the name Shakers.

One of my favorite poems was “Many of the World Attend”—from a time when they invited people from the “world” to worship with them: “Trembling in the still morning, my narrow/bed beside the others, I wake inside/these roots and tendrils growing, my skin/a poor sack to contain them…” The speaker was brought to the Shakers to live by her mother when she was 17, when she would “await the hours of stomping, singing”…when the “spirit” would “seize me in a whirling frenzy…”

In the section called “summer”, Richmond makes a sing song sort of hymn, using words from the Shakers alternating with entries from their seed and herb cabinet now kept in the Fruitlands Museum: “What did they care if the world lacked improvement/cucumber, log cucumber, squash, watermelon/It was business…/”

With the title poem, “Increase”, the authentic journal entry epigraph reads: “…our condition was a barren one, but not entirely hopeless, for we could, if we would, take children and bring them up in the principles of truth and righteousness.” (Olive Chandler Journal, 1868).

I recommend this chapbook to anyone fascinated by the Shakers, or who would like to become interested in them. The author’s previous chapbooks include, Purgatory Chasm, Birding in Winter and Boto. She has published in many journals and anthologies, and has taught writing at the Shirley Medium Correctional Facility on another Shaker site. Richmond is currently on the faculty at Clark University in Massachusetts and works with the journal “Wild Apples: a journal of nature, art, and inquiry.”

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