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Review – Camaraderie of the Marvelous

From the preface of Camaraderie of the Marvelous: “I give praise for words that hold me captive and sometimes even dance into song”; to the last line of the last poem: “Percussion is a matter of attunement,” Dianna MacKinnon Henning’s new collection of poems gives us music and dancing; also, drought, hunger, shepherds, bodies of water, houses. The poems give us food: beans, tomatoes, honey garlic, tea, potatoes, bay laurel. And throughout these images, she portrays family and relationships with the keen eye of lived experience: marriage, children, broken relationships, old age. These poems are as attentive and forceful as they are private.

Poems in the first section of Camaraderie describe the consequences of animals and humans interacting in nature. Speaking of a doe: “Their hunger howled like coyotes in moonlight.” There are philosophical lines all the way through the book. “You’ll never / get used to the way memory / makes you live many lives.” Wisdom and emotion exist alongside rhubarb and stone children. The last poem in this chapter begins: “If you stare at something long enough it assumes a life of its own” as the speaker sees a leaf as a cat. Like staring at a specific word so long it seems to be spelled wrong.

Chapter 2 involves the domestic—the very soul of our lives: food, relationships, household, soup simmering, even a recipe for cooking Great Northern beans. I am drawn to this chapter because of its emphasis on the domestic. Such topics have been disparaged in the past (by men perhaps) and these poems have the sure-footedness of any of the others in Camaraderie. “ … luck is perseverance: keep at something / long enough and the gold of art / becomes revelation.” There is so much revelation in this collection of poems.

A description of the house of her marriage begins Chapter Three: “But houses are sometimes / astute scholars who study their people … when the people broke, the house, too.” The chapter ends with a poem with the wonderful title “The Old Woman Gathers her Memories and Makes a House Plan from Them.” This part of Camaraderie has elegies for aging and a marriage and a favored house. “Timber framing depends on the wood’s strength, / the memory of touch, how bones grew to accommodate flesh.” These lovely lines describe both the house and the marriage. 

Chapter Four brings more of the world into the poems: “I can’t reconcile what is happening in the world,” always with awareness of the inner spaces of family and memory: “There were two races in our family: women and men … You’re to be seen, not heard.” We visit the family lake camp and the cellar of the family house. Cousins appear, death is a topic of discussion. “She wonders … if the dead, out of longing, draw close, waiting / for someone to tug them back.” There are elegies here, too. In the last poem of the section: “But what’s beautiful is the soul, its cocoon, as it flutters above / bedposts, a delicate hologram on the text of grief.”

Henning moves back to water and nature in Chapter Five. Rivers, stars, stones, a sparrow, chickadees. Then angel wings, a riverbed, the moon, the sea. “So much along the way was wonder.” Each image builds on the next, until the reader is awash in the galaxy, the universe. In the marvelous.

Camaraderie of the Marvelous is a woman’s gaze on the outside world and the inner spaces of her life and memory. It is full of wonder and marvels and the poet’s clear observations of her personal life and nature. “In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand,” says a Bob Dylan song. Henning sees these things and more. She conjures their underlying spirits for us. 

William Carlos Williams said, “it is difficult / to get the news from poems … men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” But in this time of pandemic when no news seems to be good news, Camaraderie of the Marvelous is a welcome addition to the canon and to the lives of readers. I urge you to welcome Henning’s words into your life.

                                                 Liza Porter, author of Red Stain and Keep the Singing.

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