Soldier On by Gale Marie Thompson
Tupelo Press, 2015; 86 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts
Gale Marie Thompson’s first full-length collection, Soldier On, is very much a collection of light in that it manages to come as close as humanly possible to one actually capturing light—to feeling incandescence materialize in one’s hands. The book opens with snippets from Sylvia Plath and Joseph Cornell depicting early daylight on a kitchen table, light that science tells us takes roughly eight minutes and twenty seconds to reach the kitchen table from the sun. Throughout her poems, Thompson tracks that light that journeys from space to various domestic and personal interiors and asks it to stay with us just a little longer than it does. Untameable light that permeates every fiber of being and eeks its way into every crevice as the poet notes, “I like to watch the great rumble/of my thighs find the light.”
These poems encapsulate the cozy, the wild, and ethereal all at once without being too tidy or too vague—they are the right amount of unkempt and wondrous. There is just enough spillover. Simple household rituals acts give way to such tender depth in poems like “Mobiles” where Thompson’s speaker shifts from canning fruit to the realization, “I’m afraid my shatter/is beginning to define me.” Isn’t that how we are confronted with such truths, though, in the midst of brushing teeth or tying shoes? Poems such as these are reminiscent of Mary Ruefle’s work where in one line the speaker is washing dishes and the ordinary, rote act allows the mind to reach absolute clarity.
Most of the poems in Soldier On take place in or refer to the home, the kitchen, cooking, and ingredients. Yet poignant abstractions are folded into poems like “Yellow Frosted Cake” with care, precision, and intricacy. Here, messy cake decorating gives way to the assertion, “There is too much in our gold, planetary bodies.” From the kitchen to the planetary body—literally. Thompson moves from the precious to the abstract in poems such as “Pulsar,” which breaks form not only in terms of the narrative style and expected sentence structure—it trades warm, kitchen table light for the starkly cold light of space. The poem repeats fragments and phrases containing “so” in essentially all its parts of speech . . . “so temporary,/so falsehood” and “so chrome/so this arrow, frozen.”
The language in this collection shines with the unexpected—not just the little heartbreaks that happen in the moments of yearning or resignation to the what-might-have-been scenarios in the poems. The imagery itself is exquisite and surprising. In “Glass Eye Poem,” for example, Thompson writes, “You knitted the smallest/yarn babies/in a seahorse pouch.” Encountering these poems is like walking into an antique shop and finding a toy from your childhood or trinkets in a hope chest. The poems just feel like home. They are warm, safe, and familiar but also brim with that unnameable feeling that teeters between sadness and joy. In the opening poem, “Cilantro Blue,” the speaker invites the reader in with, “Come be swept up & sieved/& enter & enter & enter.” How can one walk into this work and not be swept up in the tender shine of Thompson’s words?