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Saturday, January 7th, 2006


The Return Message: Poems

by Tessa Rumsey

Something Like Subjective Truth

A review by Jill Owens

In 1998, Tessa Rumsey published her first collection of poems, Assembling the Shepherd, which won the Contemporary Poetry Series Prize. In lyrical, exquisite language, those poems explored grief, faith, love, and nature, and rigorously examined and realistically re-imagined visions of a shattered world. It's one of my favorite poetry collections of the last ten years, and thus I'd been eagerly awaiting her second book, released in May 2005. The Return Message fulfills and exceeds the promise of Assembling the Shepherd, marking the arrival of a major young poet.

Beautifully designed in an oversized hardcover, The Return Message continues some of the same themes and formal innovations Rumsey dealt with in her first book, but it is both more expansive and more daring. It also contains stronger notes of irreverence, longing, and self-consciousness -- in the sense of poem as art and artifice. Each title is assigned to two poems: a three-line poem on the left-hand page, very vaguely suggesting haiku, and an expansion -- sometimes complementary, sometimes only loosely related -- on the right-hand page.

It is difficult to quote Rumsey from this book not only because the poems build and sculpt themselves from beginning to end, but also because, like the best collections, the book itself builds dramatically, introducing, re-using, and layering symbols with shades of meaning until they are as thick and lustrous as pearls. The three-line poems involve flowers: primarily variations of wisteria, natural, hybrid, and otherwise. The longer poems explore city and empire, soul and body, against a backdrop of love and loss made translucent by self and audience, by the uses and misuses of voyeurism.

Yusef Komunyakaa once said that he wrote in lines, not words; that each line must be able to both stand whole and connect at both ends. Many of the poems in The Return Message are end-stopped by periods, which, to be honest, annoyed me in her first book in the few poems in which that device was used. Here, however, Rumsey's lines shine, both as self-defined units and as essential elements of the poems. The peculiar rhythm rocks the reader back and forth, from discrete pieces to a disjointed yet seamless whole, and gives the effect of dual readings even the first time through.

Rumsey's intensity is bracing and invigorating, even when it is anguished. She -- or her characters -- are determined to see the world head-on and from the inside out, even as looking often makes her shield her eyes. Between machine and body, heartbeat and second hand, lives something like subjective truth, and we would be wise to examine it, too.

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