Monday, September 16, 2019

Fever by Irene Mitchell

Fever by Irene Mitchell*
                        Dos Madres, 2019


The temperature in Irene Mitchell’s stunning new collection of poems, Fever, holds steady throughout at about 101.5°. give or take an occasional cooling breeze. Mitchell’s excitingly named book makes several mentions of the word in poems throughout the slender three-part collection. With a title like Fever, one might expect some aroused panting, a bent toward hot sensationalism, warm corpses, a very sick sickness, insanity. 

That is not what she has in store for us.

A reader could easily miss a “fever” or two on a first perusal; there are many mentions. But that is not a sign of carelessness, or careless repetition.  Mitchell’s subtle placements of the title word (and overarching theme) are reminders that everything is already before our eyes, if only, as Dickinson wrote, “gentlemen can see.”  The dangers of fevers are at our fingertips, in our pulses.

Pernicious Ease” is the first of the book’s three sections.  One may flinch at the imagined evil possibilities of such a banner — say, the self-indulgent ennui of the unhappy gods in Milton’s Pandemonium, or the ease with which any of us can nurture harm.  Never in a hurry, though, Mitchell lays it on slow; no need to plummet for nine days and nights into a burning lake.  Her poems float like falling leaves or swoop like birds from nectar to nectar. She sidles her way in, and it is easy to go with her, even if you lose your way.  In “Salt and Burn,” for instance, we may not know what’s happened when

She dipped her brush in ochre and painted each flower’s
center as a wound.

But we feel it in our bodies when the next line knocks us sideways:

Then came the earth’s full wobble.

What wobble? It must be a big one! We grope blindly for an answer. Yet we don’t really need one; we believe it; we feel it in our legs. Thus we remain with Mitchell’s speaker, her imagery, perhaps beneath some maple boughs where,

Like the spikes and ebbs of fever
Flushed peonies are cooling.

There are no road bumps or tangles in Mitchell’s writing: it is never fussy, vapid , pedantic, or tediously promoting a cause. She is delicately (and wisely) witty, plain in her loves, always skillful. And there are surprises, even bursts of humor. “Hey, these coals are heavy!” erupts a man at the end of a meandering, endearingly neurotic poem titled “Joe, carrying coals.”  While her subjects are not without weight, she doesn’t shout them.  In this case Joe gets to shout, ending the poem abruptly. A joy. In other pieces, distant bells ring in mood or an image flashes bright.

Here and there, Mitchell engages in repartee with imagined artists or figures, or with her own notions of what the heck is going on in this life. In a brief poem “Night Over Blue Mountain,” from the section, “Therapeutic Harmony,” she writes that  there “is no fascination in darkness except in trolling for a gleam.”  Someone has been playing close attention.

Further on a small perfect poem, “Status,” is told by a watchful but playful speaker:

According to my shadow,
the prognosis is rosy.

With savvy survival techniques
I shall be transformed
from a fragile parenthesis
to a circle’s
plump perfection.

It is not uncommon for Mitchell’s poems to end in satisfaction.  There may be no place this poet can’t reach with her effortless language, her open mind (looking, listening, imagining, knowing), with her trust in how her words sound—the music her poems make, their modesty, their mischief, their centered and multiple meanings.  Visionary, crafted, awake, delicious, Fever is not to be missed.

*Mitchell is a former poetry editor of the Hudson River Art Magazine

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