Excerpts > Steven Sher
Pianos around the Cape, Glenna Luschei
reviewed by Steven Sher

Unimaginable is a mother's grief. There's no getting over the death of one's child. Yet somehow, despite losing her daughter Linda to AIDS, Glenna Luschei (founder of Café Solo, Solo and Solo Press) remains secure in her place in the world, offering wisdom and hope in the face of personal tragedy. Because life has presented her the good along with the bad, Luschei has no regrets—she has maximized each gift—having lived and witnessed to the fullest. Her remarkable new poems are testaments to a mother's joy and pain, a woman's loss and gain, a balance that has helped the poet heal, grow stronger from her past.

Haunted by memories and dreams, having lived through every parent's worst fear, Luschei speaks for every mother who has ever worried for her children. And everything reminds the poet of her child. In "Copperhead," she tries to "dream my child back to life" because she knows that in the realm of dreams such things are possible, desirable. When in "Children's Poems" she ventures "far back/into my dreams," Luschei says "I'm your mother/curl up around me./I will keep you/through this long night." Describing her planting vegetables during the waxing moon, she envisions ("Surgery") her daughter's return: "Sacred datura, tapping my dream/Moon lily,/atropine restores my daughter!" And admitting that voices "still call/in the middle of the night,/sliding/into my dream," she must lead her loved one "back to the fire . . . won't let it die out" ("Call").

Even the most innocent moment triggers the poet's memory. In "Chocolate Labrador," the family dog, formerly trained "for the blind," has "pawed out my most-used shoe," one Luschei wore "to my first grandchild's baptism,/to my first child's funeral." But the dog's curiosity is welcome; Luschei admits to needing her "to guide me from seeing too much."

Drawing from her family's history, she finds consolation, support.  In "Guided by Bittern," Luschei feels a connection to her Aunt Flora's experience: "Guided by bittern/she drove her daughter/through Mexico/in search of a cancer/cure: the apricot pit." Similarly driven, she admits:

  I lost a daughter
  and gained myself.
  This drives me
  through the flora
  the fauna
  of the Sonora desert without a hitch;
  Through the Jimson Weed,
  creosote bush.
  Over lightning fields of Tucumcari
  like the Great Blue Heron

  she will guide me.

For Luschei, an avocado rancher in Southern California, human life is an adventure patterned after the natural world. And death is an integral part of the cycle. Her strongest writing calls up timeless images, grounded in the earth she knows so well, elevating humanity to a grand scale. Consider how she describes her mother dying, "pregnant with death," in "Back Into My Body":

  My mother is pulling silk
  from the cocoon
  not to lose the thread.
  She's larva again.

Writing about an aunt in "Visiting Hours," Luschei says:

  Against her hospital screen
  I sense Nebraska wheat, coast
  in the wooden wagon
  Grandpa once pulled me in
  nights too hot to sleep.

Embracing life in its entirety, Luschei welcomes all it offers, both the "silk & barbed wire" ("Arrangement"). Even "The thistle is as lovely to remember/as the Chinese bell flower,/iris on Atascadero Lake." The adventure, life, is enough for her: "What glittered/was the road" ("Untitled"). This perspective lets her grow beyond her pain.

Fearless, Luschei recognizes that memory is a necessary bridge connecting loved ones without regard to boundaries of flesh and time—even if the visits are bittersweet. In one of several poems about her children at a young age ("Tenderfoot"), Luschei recalls her daughter changing as quickly as a butterfly:

  I feel you slipping through my palms
  feel pollen on my hands.
  Will you fly back
  Can we be friends?

Searching for universal meaning in her daughter's early death ("Pine Cones") , Luschei decides, after watching her child "descend the golden staircase," that "People die in this plague/like flies in the eyes of African children." Her concern is for all children, especially those whose lives are ruined by hunger and war (e.g., in Sarajevo and Somalia) ("Not Far from Here") or the "unnamed children" in the potters' field ("Unnamed"). This vision crystalizes in the final stanza of "Flying into the Fire":

  Now I fly into the fire.
  I have escaped death
  too many times,
  I won't rest until all the children
  have enough to eat.

Equally disturbing to this vulnerability of children is, in her view, our response to death. In "Halloween Dream,"which begins with her dreaming of the extinction of the condor, a popular cause here in America, Luschei describes another culture's mourning practice: how a Mexican child "sits near his father's grave" and "On the Day of the Dead,/women in rebozos sell corncakes,/chrysanthemums in candlelight." Finally, in stark contrast, she asks, "Why do we forget our dead?" As if our loved ones mean less to us than the condors.

Coming to terms with her grief ("My Last Poem to Grief") in an airport dream sequence, Luschei sees "you passing through security" and releases "that baggage" she has carried. At last, she claims "We're both pilgrims,/both safe. I send up my hymn to grief."

More than a book confined to healing and loss, Pianos around the Cape (the title taken from a poem, "Hearth," about her husband's great-great-grandfather moving his family to California after the Civil War) is foremost a celebration of family. And Luschei seems one of the surviving sane voices amid America's accelerating familial upheaval and the disconnectedness of modern life. Those who leave their mark upon her heart, no matter how long they've been gone, are always in her thoughts.

In "Wheels," Luschei tells how, arriving in Nebraska, her family "made its mark upon the land" starting with "the deep imprint of wheel ruts/on the Oregon trail." In "The Golden Spike," she reveals how her ancestors traveled the prairie by rail, through the Midwest and, a generation earlier, through the Ukraine. Accordingly, the foundation of her life of memories, starting with her Iowa childhood, is built on visits from grandparents, neighbors and friends "who stayed with me for life . . . create the shape I live in" ("Space").

This "shape" is further defined by her past relationships with men. Sounding a warning in "Divorcee," Luschei says: "Don't they know she's only a spruce/putting out cones in a drought?/Under threat of extinction/we all reproduce." But the divorcee is also "the guardian of wilderness/the priestess of swamp/and endangered species."

Reminiscent of Whitman is Luschei's powerful litany of stories by women ("For the Women"): "I sang of the citrus./I sang of the avocado and the lemon./It's time for me to sing of women." With the wisdom of the ages, Luschei tends "the Dickenson, tallest avocado/in the orchard," for it's the orchard that draws her back "when I get lost" ("Matriarch").

Remembering ("Bowl") her mother moving the family across the country to find work during difficult times, Luschei describes a porcelain bowl she found while washing in the river and how, in a time when women were routinely brutalized (e.g., the Korean girl enslaved by Japanese soldiers, or the mistress of a Nazi general), she kept the bowl to "remind me of escape,/that some of us are granted second chances."

Her finely-tuned memory affords her many chances to return, through better or worse, to experiences and times that defined her life. Fortunately, she invites us in, puts us in touch with our own intimate moments and places we thought were lost. The eternal optimist, she reminds us that we'll thrive, despite our setbacks, like the giant trees ("Redwoods"): "In spite of lightning and fungus/they keep growing up and up/two thousand years." With the release of Pianos around the Cape, marking thirty years of publishing her poetry, Luschei's created such a lasting gift.

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