Front cover - Alice Klein book review

Raw, heartfelt poems

Alice Klein

[Sheriar Books, 130 pages]

The reader of Alice Klein’s What the Heart Wants will receive a great gift on every page. We read poetry for such gifts: those of a sensibility that goes beyond our own, sees what we can’t see (or don’t realize we see) and notices what we don’t notice. There are 100 such gifts, each one brief enough to be a morning’s companion, in this volume.

If we’re able to accept these gifts, the poet also has great power to take us places. Alice is, first of all, a “noticer.” Her perceptions appear in fresh language because they are fresh perceptions. She is also honest. She has the courage to face the world and her mind as they are, without cosmetics. There is beauty in both, which is all the more beautiful due to the fact that there’s nothing artificial about them. It’s a bare-bones beauty.

There’s also just a touch of humour in many of Alice’s poems. It too is not interposed, but arises naturally. To illustrate this, let me quote one of the briefest pieces in the book in its entirety:

“Hard Hearts”

Cold hands, cold feet.
A grey coastal fog, and dreary.
We wait impatiently for the sun
to break through and show us mercy.
The tomatoes wait too,
to draw out the red from the green–
hard little hearts dangling on the vine
waiting to ripen, like mine. (p.42)

Some of the poems are about spiritual figures such as Meher Baba, with whom the author has had a long connection, or Jesus. A poem entitled “Dukka” and several others are informed by her years of Buddhist (Vipassana) practice. Many of these poems with explicit spiritual references are wonderful. I especially loved one titled, “If Even Jesus,” about the need to persevere bravely in the face of seeming abandonment.

However, Alice achieves the same transcendental effects by writing about horses! Were I a poetry teacher, I would “teach” her poem “In the Gloaming with Horses” (which, for some readers, will echo James Wright’s well-known poem, “A Blessing”). It puts the reader right in the equine world. Listen to these lines, in which rhythm, alliteration and description all work together:

Fetlock, forelock, mane and muzzle—
swishing of tails and quiet snorts—
the fading silhouettes of huge handsome heads
gracefully dipping. (p.9)

Alice goes even further than this marvelous evocation. In the last stanza of this one-page poem, she brings the reader to a mystical communion where the words will launch them into another, rarified realm:

Alone in a field, listening,
I breathed with the breathing of horses.
And my feet became earth.
And my breath became sky.

Finally, I want to note how some of these poems express clarity in states of desperation. This quality is invaluable, as people tend to panic in such states. In Alice’s verse I often find “grace under pressure,” Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage. Thus, she can write beautifully and helpfully, creating such a stunning image of our human predicament, in this final, short poem I will leave you with:

“Last Resort” 

Only as a last resort
do I turn, turn to Thee and call
and in that single word
lay before you everything–
a pomegranate split and spilling
its red juices, and all the seeds embedded
like so many stubborn bits of me,
waiting to be dug out and set free. (p.69)

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image: Eduardo Amorim (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)