Excerpts > Summer 2001
Colette Inez, Clemency, Carnegie Mellon University Press
Reviewed by Thomas Carren

Colette Inez arrived on the poetry scene twenty-six years ago with The Woman Who Loved Worms, a prize winning collection published by Doubleday & Company and reissued in the early 1990s by Classic Editions, Carnegie Mellon University Press. Several books appearing over the years revisited the story of her illegitimate birth to a priest and a scholar, and her abandonment by them to the Catholic sisters of a Belgian orphanage.

In Clemency, her eighth book, the poet resumes her restless exploration of family lost and regained, but with a fresh bravura and self-possession. As the story's heroine, she dispenses mercy to those whose indifference afflicted her childhood. Those who could not keep her are given their reasons, and even if not fully understood, their humanity is drawn, the enigma of character acknowledged.

In "The Telling" Inez conjures up a scene in which her parents secretly meet. The father's collar, the yoke of the church, constricts him, keeps him harnessed to the spiritual devotions he has taken a vow to safeguard. At the same time the mother yearns for the conventional ceremonies of a Catholic birth:

She peers at the swelling
under her coat, forms a steeple with her hands,
daydreams holy water blessing the baby's face,
a saint's name for the christening.
He tugs at his collar and blinks.

The poet imagines her mother's estrangement in harboring a secret made doubly scandalous by her affair with a man of the cloth.

This woman
was the furtive girl
fingering her rosary
buttons strained
when she took
the train north

to place me in a cradle
strangers might rock...

("Oxford Meeting")

The mysterious mother is presented in a variety of poses. The cold "queen of foxgloves and lilies" in "Second Visit" is redeemed in a cluster of recent poems written after Inez approached a newfound Parisian cousin who fills in some of her story's gaps. Now the mother reappears as a tender figure at the piano coaxing Chopin and Chaminade from the keyboard ("Mother Song").

A counterpart of her literary offspring, she reads Valery's Poemes in a dream at the family house in Nérac where the daughter and cousin come to visit her grave site. Sometimes the mother broods, an ambiguous and withdrawn rival to her accomplished elder sister. Other times she floats, a wistful ghost whose essence lingers in the nooks and crannies of the river house, and is summoned by an ethereal great grandmother who haunts the dawn in "Gascon Voices." Inez seems to delight in these new stories that flesh out a past meager in particulars.

The lusty California-born father, a professional Father about whom Inez, in a published essay, wrested a few dry facts from The Catholic Encyclopedia, enters her poems of longing and desire. The sometimes god-like priest is invoked as a scholar and reverend, but also as a lost flesh-and-blood parent whose physical presence the daughter wants to revive. Inez is hungry for a commonplace bond: "...You snap off/ your collar and turn/ an ordinary father,/ to embrace me in the garden." "My Father in the West" ends on a note of gratitude for the defiance of church laws that brought her squalling forth into a Brussels infant ward: "...I kneel/ astounded never to have gathered flowers for him/ nor blessed the seed/ the mutiny of his fleshy root." The poet-sensualist is clearly her father's daughter.

The last section, a clutch of dream-like poems, provides a respite from the fervor of the book's earlier offerings. Here moths, stars, dreams and birds, flutter and buzz; friendships, countries outlined on a map, gardens and memories of school calmly meander. The poet's fascination with flora and fauna, the consolation she takes in the natural world, again surface in this collection, and her engagement is more solid and secure than one might expect of a "city pent" Manhattan poet. Her exuberance accompanies monarch butterflies journeying to Mexican hills, and attends the scent of sweet alyssum that arouses bees.

And should you take her story too seriously, she poses as a schoolmarmish muse indulging in a bit of self-mockery:

Abandon jonquils, pale rain,
dew on trillium. You're like a lover
who's exhausted every posture,
she says peering over my shoulder...

("Hard Muse")

A resourceful poet whose work continues to beguile with the joy of language and the drama of her story, Inez has written a spirited work that sets her apart as one of our most vibrant poets.

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