Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Paris Paint Box, New and Selected Poems, by Helena Minton


Paris Paint Box, New and Selected Poems, by Helena Minton. Loom Press, 180 pages, $20.

Review by Ed Meek

Reading the selected poems of a writer provides us with a unique opportunity to view writing from a span of years. In this case, the 1970s to the present. I’ve enjoyed reading poems by Helena Minton over this period when they’ve appeared in journals and literary magazines. The first good poem of hers I ran into, oh about fifty years ago, is called “Bread.”

Dough rises in the sun,

history of the human race inside it:

orgies, famine, Christianity,

eras when a man could have his arm

chopped off for stealing half a loaf.

I punch it down, knead the dark

flour into the light, let it bake,

then set it on the table beside the knife,

learning the power

cooks have over others, the pleasure

of saying eat.

Minton knows how to move from concrete details to an abstract statement that resonates. She also has a light touch in many of her poems, willing to combine orgies, famine and Christianity in one line. She has a good ear: “half a loaf” picking up from beginning with “Dough.” And there’s a little edginess inserting a knife into the poem before she closes with a satisfying declaration. If you’ve ever made bread or if you cook, you know the feeling she’s talking about.

Minton has a wide range of subjects that interest her, among them: flowers, bees, trees, rivers. Her poems like those of William Stafford, Richard Hugo and Robert Frost, are grounded in close observation and a love of language. From “Perennial Bed,”

In September the bees spend hours

on the saucers of rose sedum,

their curled legs moving over petals

fleshy as rubber brushes.

As in “Bread,” the language is condensed with lively movement. Like William Stafford (“What the rivers says, this is what I say.”) she has quite a few poems about rivers. One is about the Merrimack.

I walk a path built of granite,

wooden rail at the level of my hand.

I want to follow the entire river

as it flows through names

I’ve seen on maps: Manchester, Concord,

city of peace, of smooth, fat grapes

and the villages: Tilton, Riverhill.

That’s a quiet, assured voice that has us reconsidering the role of rivers, their beautiful names and the thousands of towns and cities built along them.

In “Standing at the Trellis Before Supper,” she claims: “It’s always better to let someone/

underestimate you. / Did the string bean say that?” That’s an old school point of view we could use more of in today’s self-promoting world and the string bean perfectly illustrates it. Thoreau spends a chapter in Walden telling us that string beans are the perfect vegetable to grow.

Minton is also willing to take on more weighty topics. In “The Dead Keep Us Company,” she begins with: “Now when we speak / they don’t interrupt. / They let us win every argument.”

She ends by reminding us: “Off hand, they tell us / what no one else / has the heart to.” As we age, we spend more time conversing with those we have lost and as she says, being reminded of what they told us.

“The Visit” brings us into a prison where: “The first thing you ask for is a map / but they won’t give you one.” Once inside, “

A visitor, like you, gives up

his license, his car keys, money…

They don’t want you to know

where you are, as if you were blindfolded

and spun around, without the blindfold

with no point of reference,

no point of origin or destination.

Minton reminds us that the prisoner lives in a very small world, “a box within a box.” And “what they deprive him of… they will deprive of you, too.” In this and so many other poems Minton has us rethinking something we tend to overlook.

“Contemplations” like “Sketches for Edward Hopper,” invites us into a bleak environment. “She drove home in the dark in a downpour. / He bowed his head before an open window… She pulled the shade down inside herself… Leaves like those of a locust appeared lined up in a derelict wind.” Bleakness in poetry, however, as Robert Bly points out, is not a bad thing. It brings us down like meditation.

The Paris Paintbox, the first fifty pages of the collection, based on research by Minton, follows an impressionist painter, Berthe Morisot, a “painter of the early morning light” who has recently gotten attention. I’ll leave those for you to enjoy. Like the painter she depicts, Helena Minton deserves our attention. Her poems like Robert Frost’s are filled with delight and wisdom.

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