Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Open Door by Ruth Smullin


The Open Door

by Ruth Smullin

Fishing Line Press

Georgetown, Kentucky

ISBN 978-1-64662-356-3

The 26 poems of Ruth Smullin’s chapbook, The Open Door, arrived in the mail just in time to provide perfect biscuits to go with my wake-up-from-your-nap-and-face-up-to-the-afternoon coffee; they so absorbed my attention that I stretched out my arousal, compelled to finished the poems before I finished my coffee.

The poems of this collection, with its ekphrastic title poem on a painting of Bonnard, are life drawings from the speaker’s earliest memories until as a grandmother she places her grandchildren into a Bruegel composition in “Yom Kippur Under the Night Sky:”

On this eve of the day of atonement, it's hard

to feel solemn – the balmy October evening warm

and humid as a summer night, sky a blur of gray,

the moon fuzzy with moisture.

Twelve hundred chairs line the parking lot.

Sitting in the back row, listening to rush-hour sounds

from nearby streets, I watch families trickle in,

find seats and friends, catch up on news – children

of all ages and colors, jeans and striped socks,

tutus and leotards, Superman and Alice.

Intoxicated by the night air, the children, the moment,

I think of my two-week-old grandson,

born into a new moon, a new year.

Her strokes are sure, sometimes pointillistic and, when necessary, as fluid as these from the initial prose poem “Yellow,” which, besides being a dissertation on the color, “Sunflower, goldfinch, goldenrod, yellow jackets on a ripe peach,” is also an announcement of the time spanned by this collection from the yellow of “fat rendered from a chicken in Grandma’s kitchen,” to an impoverished present where “These day corn is too yellow, too sweet, watermelon yellow when it should be red; the seeds we loved to spit, gone.”

That mild complaint about seedless water melons provides a hint of an elegiac tone shared by many of these poems of which “Old Letters” (she has “saved every letter. … Six boxes full”) is a good example; here are its concluding stanzas:

Did you mean to sound so cold and hostile?

My mother writes. Dearest, his mother begins,

the phlox is blooming, we’re looking forward

to your visit.

Sarah is growing up at an alarming rate,

my now-dead friend tells me, she is thin,

complicated and moody –

Reading their letters an act of mourning

that sharpens the sense of loss.

I suspect Ruth’s favorite impressionist is Bonnard since, besides the title poem, the only other frankly ekphrastic poem is “Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath and Small Dog”:

In the bath, she floats, calmed

by warmth, wetness, a sensation

of lift. Around her, violet walls swell

blue-green tiles ripple. She drifts

like kelp on the open sea, the tub

holding her steady.

In addition to writing about painting she frequently writes as if painting a still life:


on a white plate, my own still life.

Fruit lavish as a rose colors the room,

pleases my eye.

For weeks I study its odd shape,

angles like cheekbones, skin taut

with the fullness of what's hidden,

the blossom and a tiny crown.

or an intimate landscape:

Raspberry Patch in Winter

Rising from deep snow, the canes stand spare,

naked – bright calligraphy in late sun.

Their long shadows – delicate, insubstantial –

reach out across the white expanse.

But regrettably, as my initial pleasure was interrupted upon reaching the final poem, I must stop my praise somewhere, so I shall do it by letting the poet speak for herself about loss with the first lines from “Lost,” a poem where she approaches grieving with humor:

Why do people say we “lost” him when he died?

as if we'd left them on the beach by mistake

like a forgotten flip-flop, after we packed up

towels, shovels, sunblock, and somehow overlook

our husband and father asleep in the sand where we

buried him up to his neck, face covered with a hat

to protect him from sun. If we’d glanced back

from the car before driving home, surely

we'd have noticed the hat, the mound of sand.

Now, when you have obtained your copy from somewhere other than Amazon, such as with an old fashioned mail order from the publisher (Finishing Line Press, P.O. Box 1626, Georgetown, Kentucky 40324) make yourself a cup of coffee or tea or hot chocolate, sit where you have good light, and have some good reading.

—Wendell Smith

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