HERYL A. RICE did not spend her boyhood in Minnesota like the title of her new chapbook My Minnesota Boyhood (Post Traumatic Press, 2012)
suggests; she grew up on Long Island, New York. She was born in Mineola, raised in Deer Park and attended Half Hollow Hill schools in Dix Hills. Currently, she lives in New York's Hudson Valley, an area rich in art and poetry, where she met and became friends with a fellow poet, and catalyst for this collection. The chapbook is a declaration of love that reminds me of Franz Kafka's quote: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?…A book must be like an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us.”
I believe that this collection does just that. Cheryl's honesty breaks that frozen sea inside us, allowing us to consider how vulnerable we all are, in this life, to unforeseen passion. In the first poem, one of the most powerful in the collection, she explains her intentions:
Pardon me for elbowing in, me having had neither
a boyhood nor a Minnesota, but my crush
Assuming the identity of a young child on her first ice fishing trip, "Outside," probably comes in part from the child I was, precocious, too young to hang with the grownups but too old for the kids, even those of my own age.
was born years ago, in the town of frostbite fall,
Later, in the same piece, she confesses:
Better for me to recall that rural gala
than my own suburban source,
laundry piled on the porch of a summer bungalow,
never meant for year-round families
When I asked Cheryl why she chose to write from the perspective of a young boy from the Midwest, she said:
"I think that writing from my friend's point of view, which really only happens in a few poems (some may appear to be from his POV, but are mainly conjecture) was inspired not only by my tremendous affection for him, but a kind of frustration that he wasn't writing more about what I considered to be a fascinating subject, life in Minnesota. We are the same age, but his life experiences-- ice fishing, boating on big lakes, his grandparents' farm-- all seemed to be begging to be written about, and he wasn't doing it enough, at least to my satisfaction! What nerve I had!! But, you write about what moves you. He will get to all he has to say eventually, and I think writing about his childhood is a roundabout way for me to get to mine, which my next main chapbook collection is about."
Even though the Voices change throughout, there is an underlying sense that stepping into her friend's childhood has freed Cheryl and allowed her to toy with new subject matter. With ease, Cheryl is able to change character and see the world through fresh eyes. Throughout the collection, Cheryl splices images from her own childhood near the shore, and her adulthood in the Hudson Valley, with the her crush's landlocked life, and in doing so, she creates haunting distance between men and women through overlapping landscape, created by the continuous setting and point-of-view shifts. Whether the narrator's escape route is a lake or an ocean, it is apparent that the fluidity of water, paralleled with the fluidity of emotions, is an important motif. Don't we all want to escape into the skin of another person at times? In “Fish House-Lake Mille Lacs,” the juxtaposition of settings builds a bridge that connects the lives of two people and shows how poetic observation is a shared experience:
Purple rises into pink into blue,
slateful of snow, one narrow path
shoveled out to the fish house,
a fancy one in this stock photo, you say,
not the plywood shanties you remember.
I know the same blue from Catskill twilight,
winter punctuated with acorns, twigs,
irreverent leaves freckling white fields.
This shared experience, via intimate moments, is translated onto the page in a way that makes you feel as if you are sitting in a cushy arm chair, wrapped in a wool blanket in front of a fireplace in the cabin of Cheryl's mind. You can feel the warmth of emotions kindling throughout these pieces, but you can also feel the cold drafts of Cheryl's true childhood sneaking through the cracks. The inspiration for this particular piece, Cheryl says, “Was directly inspired by a photo that my friend sent me. He found it online, and it looks something like the fish houses he remembers from his youth, but the ones he knew were not so fancy. The colors I describe in the poem are just as they are in the photo, purples and blues. Since tracking down the photographer (and paying for use of it) were out of the question, it was also the inspiration for the watercolor painting I did for the cover of the chapbook.”
When I asked Cheryl to discuss POV shifts in her pieces, she discussed how:
"POV shifts in the chapbook are mainly due to the various origins of the poems. Some of them are a bit older, and of course written from my POV as a Long Islander. Others, inspired by tales of a childhood in a foreign land, are addressed directly at the storyteller. Assuming the identity of a young child on her first ice fishing trip, "Outside," probably comes in part from the child I was, precocious, too young to hang with the grownups but too old for the kids, even those of my own age. It was another attempt, too, to get into the skin of a child growing up in that frozen land!"
When reflecting on her own real life, Cheryl utilizes a sarcastic tone as seen in “Life Preservers,” where she admits:
I'm the only one outside at the rail,
but this is a rarity. I want to be here
on the water, gulls swooping below me
on their way to an everyday meal.
I didn't pay $38 to stay below and
get drunk at 10 a.m. on a
Monday in November, 2002.
In contrast, when taking on another childhood, Cheryl has the opportunity to wander around fearlessly like in “Outside” when the narrator says, “I want the ice to myself for a while,” she can slide across the surface of a childhood where the closest body of water can freeze, unlike the ocean that surrounded her childhood island. Having a clear surface to stand on gives her the chance to cross over into a life she could have had. However, no matter what we want, the ice thaws, and the emotions are once again free to move unrestricted. Cheryl expresses this idea in the last poem of the collection “Leaving Minnesota,” which ends:
Let the fish houses rest, wait for other winters.
Let the walleye, as her name might imply,
look ahead to the future, one eye on the past,
indigo November twilight, the real freeze
that comes before buds
bursts into one last verse of hope.
In these last lines, she seems to be asking the Minnesota boy to leave the past behind and to be open to a landscape of conversation, similar to the one that she has undertaken in this collection. She asks her friend, as well as the reader, to wade through new waters instead of skating over the surface of the past. Although, Cheryl says that landscape and setting is not as important to her as studying the human condition, her ability to paint vivid portraits in the reader's mind adds a dimension often lacking in modern poetry. Whatever the last verse of hope is, Cheryl does not need to wait as every poem in this collection bursts with hope.
When I asked Cheryl about her expectations for this collection, her response reminded me of something that Martin Espada said at a reading that I attended, and I am paraphrasing here: If you have something you want to hide and you don't want anyone to read it, (especially your in-laws) put it in a poem. Cheryl's response is classic in that I think many writers feel this way when they put out a seemingly groundbreaking collection in the complex world that we live in:
"I expected more shit to hit the fan, and hardly any has. I was sure people would think that my friend and I were sleeping together, which we are NOT, but so many of these poems are so obviously love poems, in my view, that I was surprised that no one was bold enough to make that assumption, at least directly to me. I was pleased that Dayl and Post Traumatic Press agreed to publish it, and perhaps that has earned it some respect. Otherwise, my expectations for this collection were really no different than for any other. I hoped it would sell a few copies, and get me some time in the spotlight. Maybe a couple drinks."
Thematically, this is the tightest chapbook that I have read in some time and I look forward to reading more of her work in the near future. Cheryl is the founder and host of the semi-annual Sylvia Plath Bake-Off',
allegedly the world's only combination open mic/baked goods contest. She had the pleasure of two poetry workshops at The Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY with former NYS Poet Laureate Sharon Olds. Her poetry has or will appear in The Baltimore Review, Bitterroot, Chronogram, The Country and Abroad, The Florida Review, Home Planet News, Mangrove, Other: -----, The Temple/El Templo, and The Woodstock Times, and online at albanypoets.org, poetrypoetry.com., and thehiddencity.com. Her new collection "Moses Parts the Tulips," (ADP Press) should be out in the fall
You can find more information about purchasing Cheryl Rice's work at: http://flyingmonkeyprods.blogspot.com