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A review of HA Maxson's A Commonplace Book

A Commonplace Book $9.95 H.A. Maxson

Blast Press

H.A. Maxson’s newest collection offers a unique take on a centuries-old process, that of keeping a commonplace book. Writers and philosophers have long kept notebooks where they jot down quotes or passages that resonate (or perplex!) from their reading. Commonplacing is different from a journal, it’s more a personal collection of others’ writing that triggers something in the reader; thoughts to return to, words or phrases to use in one’s own writing, passages that make the reader catch her breath. Each poem is prefaced with a commonplace book epigraph. The quotes come from voices as diverse as Freud, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Loren Eiseley, the Bible, Keats, Jimmy Buffett, and many others.

Maxson’s writing is tight, quiet, and while not obscure, full of questions and comments for the reader to figure out. In “Tracks,” the opening poem, the speaker says “We have just the maps, not the destinations.” In A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry, Gregory Orr talks about the importance of naming. Maxson masters the art of naming in his narrative poetry. He is attentive, and the maps he offers his readers share rich details of what he observes. He doesn’t just mention the word garden, he talks about “ the anarchy/ of fickle harvests,” a concept any gardener who dreams all winter of lush fruit and cut flowers will understand.

One of my favorites, “Negative Capability,” is a series of wondering questions about the weight of things:

Some say the soul weighs 21 milliliters,

escapes the body at death and leaves

it lighter:

what then does an idea weigh?

A memory? A notion? A thought? Hope?

Does a nightmare outweigh a dream?

Nature is prominent in these poems, giving the reader opportunity to ponder man’s relationship to the rest of the world. Maxson shares a world where “the year’s first snowfall—wispy as spider webs” exists alongside Precambrian ediacarans (look it up, I never wrote this down in my one and only college-level geology class). I also had to look up “frass,” a fun word to say aloud. These poems are full of “words spun like windsocks,” and midges that “formed a ghost,over and over, like breaths in winter.”

Virginia Woolf, in her essay "Hours in a Library," states "Let us take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning.” (Granite and Rainbow: Essays by Virginia Woolf) Maxson will have you digging through boxes in the attic or basement for your own notebooks, eager to recall what you once copied.

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