Inside, Outside, Morningside
Marjorie Kowalski Cole
Ester Republic Press 2009
Reviewed by Bob Wake
Alaskan poet Marjorie Kowalski Cole’s collection, Inside, Outside, Morningside, won me over on the first page in the concluding lines of “Desire”:
The aspens shake in the wind
like the bells of a prayer wheel.
I would have what is within and without
arrive at one still moment
A rare balance is struck “within and without” that continues poem after poem. The natural world astounds (“Walk into the soft breeze and astonish your skin” runs a memorable line from “Mediterranean Evening”) while our fragile lives seem destined for departure and loss (“The young are strong enough; / We can go now,” she eulogizes in “Lessons Learned”). Cole’s Catholicism infuses these poems, an appreciation and thirst for the sacred. Our humanness doesn’t so much interfere as intermingle:
In a blazing new parish in Fairbanks, Alaska,
the one great room is white with light.
It could be a dentist’s office: globes like snowballs
press on my eyes, threaten to conquer sin with wattage.
[“Light and Its Absence”]
Her larger spiritual concerns are ecological:
Gravel roads lead past tin warehouses, generations
of derricks on their sides, earthmovers
with outsize tires like herds of thirsty elephants
I drop off the road and step across the tundra
around fox shit, foam cups, crumpled packs
of Camels, arrive to my surprise at a lake.
[“Colleen Lake, Deadhorse, Alaska”]
Themes coalesce around Cole’s multiple roles as mother, daughter, wife, world traveler, spiritual seeker and environmentalist. None of these categories are mutually exclusive. Connectedness is everything. She writes equally well and movingly of her mother’s illness, of art, of forest wildfires, of Ireland, Spain, Sweden. She returns again and again to nature’s healing harmonies, as in “Summer Night”: “Past midnight, the woods below those buttered treetops / are stirring with animals, wondrous with light.”
The living world never fails to generate surprise, to snap us out of ourselves, our melancholy, our self-centeredness:
I remember times of wailing
into my couch, alone
and utterly baffled by life,
when suddenly a cat
would be sitting on my head.
I was several poems into Inside, Outside, Morningside before I glanced at the back cover and learned of Marjorie Kowalski Cole’s death last year just as the book was going to press. She was in her mid-fifties. This graceful, luminous collection is a precious legacy. (Cole is also the author of a well-received 2006 novel, Correcting the Landscape.)