hankrules2011

A polymath rambling about virtually anything

A Review of Marilyn Kallet’s How Our Bodies Learned

Posted by Scott Holstad on April 26, 2022

Marilyn Kallet: How Our Bodies Learned
Marilyn Kallet: How Our Bodies Learned

How Our Bodies Learned by Marilyn Kallet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Superb. Everything Marilyn Kallet produces is consistently at the very highest levels of quality and craft, something one can say about few others. Indeed, if there is one certain area where you can count on inconsistency, I’d wager it would be writing, and possibly even more so, poetry. In fact — and I draw on my own career to illustrate — many/most writers can be so predictably inconsistent in the quality of their work (accusations seemingly thrown at virtually every poet who ever wrote) that it’s not only inevitable for a poet to be known for one or two of their works/books (if good and lucky) while simultaneously having some to most of the rest of their work ignored, spurned, criticized, etc. One thing that is especially frustrating, and I include myself as a party in this, is that there’s little worse in the field that an uneven book! A collection comprised of some gems, surrounded by duds dying on the vine (sorry for the mixed metaphor). One of my own books has several sections and in retrospect, it nearly pains me to look at it at times because one of those sections stands out — to me at least — as particularly weak when compared to the others, something no reviewer was ever brutal (or honest) enough to write. Marilyn? Hell, not only can’t I think of a single person, publication, review, etc., that has ever said or inferred anything remotely indicative of these literary challenges about Marilyn or any of her work, but I myself can’t think of a single book of hers that doesn’t meet the highest of standards — and yes, I do hold her to a higher standard than most others because I think she’s THAT good, and she always exceeds those standards. Not only am I a poet, writer, author, scholar, but critic as well. Having written hundreds of book reviews and having written and published a number of critical essays in various journals (peer reviewed), I read friends and colleagues’ works with a critical eye as well as those I don’t know. I don’t do this for an ulterior motive or with a negative intention — it’s just part of the job, so to speak. I’ve been lucky enough to know Marilyn Kallet personally for close to 40 years now (egads!!!), so I admit to bias. I view her as a dear personal friend, a valued friend in letters, a person to look up to for many reasons, and I read her work and I have gone to as many readings of her as possible — something hard to do when you’ve spent most of your life hundreds of miles away. But here’s the deal, and I’m sure Marilyn would agree with, vouch for, or otherwise concur — she and I write quite differently, and often on different topics using different poetic techniques and devices, likely have very different audiences and to be candid, despite having spent far too much time obtaining far too much education and teaching at several academic institutions, on the whole I’ve never been a fan of “the Academy” and I’ve much preferred to hang out in the slums of the small press, the zines, the cross-genres, the vast international media, the crazies — hell, anything but the stereotypical Iowa Writers Workshop alums! I’ve written poems about this and actually one or two became pretty well known, anthologized, and I actually saw fan mail published by editors because of some highly critical poems about the perceived typical mainstream/academic poet. One that proved pretty popular was titled “to all you goddamn nature sissies.” That should give you an idea of how I often view “mainstream” poetry.

By most accounts, going by her CV, her bio, her career — Marilyn should fit within those biased, ugly parameters I just described. But she doesn’t — never has, never will. Because even though she and I write about different things in different ways to different audiences, Marilyn is so much more than just a damn label! She comes from and resides in a world of rules, of “successful” and “accepted” poets and writers because they meet certain criteria, but quite often whose work so very bores me to tears — along with millions of others who WANT to like poetry! — who can’t possibly speak to or for me and Marilyn has spent years in this world, but to me and many others, she’s a real person with a real life and real life view who can flow into and out of different scenarios, emotions, contexts, periods, schools, genres, places, etc., and feel comfortable in all, act comfortable in all, be welcomed in all — because she allows herself to shine out through her poems and can’t help but impact a person, typically in the most positive of ways. She gives of herself and welcomes you — the reader — to join her, to appreciate her craft — because she IS a master of craft (damn all what they say about Donald Hall!) — and at this point, I’m babbling, but I do want to make one point that represents a thought I’ve long held about Marilyn and her poetry. Poets will try to convey, elicit, induce a variety of emotions, responses, etc. I want this to sound right: I’ve long viewed Marilyn as being so engaged in her craft, so engaged in her subject, in her reader, so enthralled with the word, the cut of the line, the nuance, that it’s like Marilyn and these poems are lovers — not in some sicko, kinky way, but as in she and her poems share moments most of us hope to attain yet never do. She has a near-sensual relationship with her poems; the intimacy is incredibly powerful and I view that as a sign of a truly gifted poet and writer, and it’s something that seems so natural for her that it’s a bit awe inspiring because I can name 5-10 writers off the top of my head right now who’ve tried to get that close, move us that much, convey things, feelings, thoughts, desire, admirations, emotions, appreciation and despite spending their entire careers — their lives — making such efforts, if they ever did accomplish such a thing, perhaps it may have been in just one of their collections. Marilyn seems to almost effortlessly accomplish this in every book of hers I’ve ever read, and while my own work has often been described as very impacting, it’s for radically different reasons. I think I know how difficult it is or must be for any poet or writer to achieve what I just (poorly) attempted to describe, and therefore I know and I believe that Marilyn must work so very hard and yet you never get that idea when reading her words. It’s just so natural. So Marilyn Kallet. So damn good.

So do I recommend this book? Hell, if you must be fed info on that, you didn’t read the damn review! Get this book. Read this book. But remember, she’s got quite a few others out there and they’re all worth reading, so please consider and recall that you don’t have to be a poetry fan or lover to appreciate the words and poems inside these pages because I think they transcend the limitations we place on them via labels at a bare minimum. Most strongly recommended.

View all my reviews

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