• Stephen Scott Whitaker

Joan Colby's new collection celebrates women, and the human spirit


Joan Colby Her Heartsongs, Pressa Press, $13.95.

In the wake of the most emotionally wrenching election in the history of the country, perhaps the western world, hatred, and extremism is on the rise in the United States, and much of it is directed towards women. On Capitol Hill conservative politicians minimized women, dehumanized women, and the president-suspect mocked Senator Warren, calling her Pocahontas. On line, conservative memes are being spread about repealing women’s rights. I don’t want to give you, dear reader, the idea that Joan Colby is responding to this culture war with political tropes, or frankness, she is instead doing poet’s work, crafting sound and language to fit the wonder, or grief, or exigency that spurred her to work. But at the (excuse me) heart of the book, is women. Her Heartsongs champions women, celebrates them, and often questions the other, the male, placing him as outsider, friend, lover, and father. The collection’s big themes include living in the natural world, death, relationships, and misogyny, and throughout the work Colby’s measured voice cuts and graces the language with urgency and aplomb. In Her Heartsongs, love comes, love goes, Portia’s ghost appears, and vanishes, as do the seasons. There are of course horses.

The collection thrums from the beginning. It is early on where Colby’s work places the issues of institutionalized misogyny front and center. The opening poem, “Her Heart” is good old iambic American verse. Prosaic and sprung. “The heart of a woman beats faster than the heart of the man./ A billion more beats over a lifetime. No wonder a woman/Is tired….” Colby’s voice employs conventional music, variations of the iambic line sliced into free-verse, with occasional lyric flourishes. Colby’s voice is well suited to cut language to the bone, and directly address subject without artifice. Much of the social context of the early poems is the oppression of the patriarchy, which in this case include the way women are pressured to be pretty and dumb, the way women are expected to be submissive to men, and the way women are expected to do all of the emotional lifting in a relationship because toxic masculinity is too busy stewing or struck dumb by their sex drive. In “Smart Girls” Colby uses the memory of playing Portia in college to both eviscerate conservative chauvinism, and recall the history of women being told to “tone it down.” “No one likes a woman who thinks/That’s what she is,” this fear of smart women, Colby knows, is real, and happening now. Later in the gorgeous “Misogyny” Colby addresses the core of man’s conscious/semiconscious/unconscious hatred towards his better half, simple jealousy. “<Adam> hated how it wasn’t enough/to be alone in paradise.” Colby’s understated rage burns steady; she’s controls the rhythm and speed, smooth, and fast. In “Living Room” Colby opens with, “Crow song. Off-key,” which reads like a poetic dis of both Poe and Ted Hughes. You can almost see Colby, fed up, with mic in hand, at a poetry reading at a pub, leaning in to the audience to read her work, the crowd’s “Ohs” and “No ways” barely fading before Colby takes on Eve, and the garden of Eden. It’s a glorious opening from one of America’s finest poets.

Colby’s sensuousness reminds me of Plath, Sexton, and Olds: sharp visual detail empowered by lush, slippery diction, such as in “Securing A Memory:”

Landscape pours past, how we are not

Speaking in the immense blossom

That opens between us, night petals rank

And dangerous and seductive so that

My mouth tingles

Though we are not yet kissing.

Colby’s a poet of rural America, and from the outside this may seem rustic or even somehow conservative. Colby shows us that is littered with rot. This is a place where kids drive the backroads as fast as they can, where horses die, and where fields are planted, cared for and harvested. Later in the collection, some of the poems tell of an aging marriage. The elegies are sorrowful, and so is the environment, growing wild like the emotions, whether it’s “the land mounding and collapsing/spitting its skein of gravel” or the chokeberry’s growing thick and thorny.

One of the truths Her Heartsongs explore is the passage of time, and our relationship with it, and the inevitable decay of both our physical form, and even possibly our humanity, for as human spirits age they do not always do so with joy or wonder. In “Pain (for Christina)” “endurance/is courage,” and in “Testimony” the “Tragedy of the petrified forest...” is that “...The stoic enjoys nothing….The old man on the porch waiting/For cars to pass.” Colby reminds us that poetry is as much a lifestyle choice as it is vocation; poetry is to be practiced throughout a lifetime. Colby’s work is enriched by her experience in the natural world, by watching time pass, by witnessing the growth and decay of nature. The natural world acts as spiritual catalyst, the act of writing poetry is the act of being reborn over and over. This idea crystallizes in “If This Were a Love Poem “..pretend you are not a bird,/Pretend you are anything else/Snake, muskrat, wooly mammoth,/Everything that ever burst from a single celled/creature...into every possibility even love.”

Colby’s poems are flint sharp, and her poems spark in the Midwestern dark, an emotional and spiritual landscape where “it’s what you can’t see that gets you.”


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