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Charm and Strange

Kirkus Review

(November, 2020)

These lyrical poems inhabit a world of dreamscapes, enigmas, and the

numinous. In her second collection, following The Last Eclipsed Moon (2008), Casebeer brings together 51 poems, many previously published in literary magazines. The title poem refers to two types of a quark, a fundamental subatomic particle. In 1990, the year Robert Taylor won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on quarks, the speaker in this poem “had so little time to wonder / about the heart of anything,” consumed with “children and work dogs and cats lilies and irises,” that she didn’t pay much attention to his achievement. Noting that the very term quarks comes from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, whose opening line starts in the middle of a sentence, the speaker suggests that literature has the greater claim to what’s fundamental, since a story—unlike matter—can begin anywhere. “Charm and strange” also encapsulate the book’s sense of forces that are, like the quark, elusive. Dreams and death, for example, figure in the opening piece, “Imagine the weight.”

 

The speaker has anxiety dreams about time-pressured tasks she must perform, including some related to her (now dead) parents. They’re late in two senses, and in the slowness of living, she can’t catch up. The short, unpunctuated lines convey her breathlessness well. In all these poems, Casebeer’s craft is evident in the lines’ precision and economy. Similarly, in “Symbol,” the speaker’s fears for her husband and his “death rattle / crisis” aren’t stated explicitly but are expressed instead by the disturbing image of shrikes, predator birds “that impale their prey / on thorns since they have no talons / only a songbird’s delicate feet.” Other poems engage with politics and social issues, but whatever the subject, the author goes devastatingly to the heart of things. Powerful, well-wrought poems that consider mystery with discipline and nuance.

 

BlueInk Review

(September, 2020)

Linda Casebeer’s Charm and Strange: Poems is an impressive poetry collection that braids the poet-speaker’s rich, interior life with memorable details from the larger world.

 

These free-verse poems, in five sections, present a series of vivid tableaus depicting and reckoning with the current zeitgeist—e.g. “the year Trump fell in love with Kim Jung Un” or “the sheen of oil spilling into the Gulf”—alongside the speaker’s personal history, dream life, investments in art and literature, and exploration of the natural world.

Here, specific people, places, and things draw readers into narrative scenes and lyric meditations, and Casebeer skillfully activates the senses: “At midnight when I turned the car/ into the driveway facing the lake/ headlights caught a hundred geese/ huddled at the edge of ice.” We can see the car turning, the headlights framing the geese. We can feel the implicit cold conjured by the phrase “edge of ice.”

Casebeer textures her collection not only with landscapes readers can enter but also by creating meaningful allusions to the humanities. Readers encounter painters like Picasso and Kandinsky, writers like Vonnegut, and D.H. Lawrence, musicians like Charlie Parker and Iris Dement. Never merely name-dropping, Casebeer weaves these historical figures and their creations into the poetry’s fabric. For instance: “…we believe/ when synapses cease/ the corpse will be tinged/ blue but cutting into the brain/ neurons will be as white/ as the sunbleached bones/ painted by O’Keeffe…”

Eschewing stuffiness, the collection also references less erudite activities: dining at Huddle House, asking Siri for directions, watching the television series American Horror Story.

 

The volume’s title doesn’t do justice to its complexity or inventiveness, and some segments could be tightened (“as we climbed higher intensity spilling over/ the mountains into numbered improvisations/ emerging at the end as biomorphic images…”) Overall, however, this is a wonderful offering. As the experience of coming to intimately know the speaker unfolds, the collection’s fresh and startling images are sure to linger in readers’ minds.

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LINDA CASEBEER

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