by Jon Lemay | Contributing Writer
Southern Illinois University Press, 2021
Catherine Pond’s debut poetry collection Fieldglass explores, among other things, the idea of recovery in both its primary definitions. On the one hand, we have poems that examine recovery in its more clinical sense: restoration or return to a stable or healthy state—which, in Fieldglass, involves the process of working through trauma, addiction, or heartache. Yet Pond also appears to engage with the more practical idea of recovery as an attempt to re-obtain what we’ve lost or what has been taken from us.
In a recent interview, Pond discussed her considerable interest in photography, which comes through in the blocking of her poems—particularly in the collection’s first few pieces that deal with her childhood. She sequences her poems in such a way that we learn early on in the collection how to read them. When writing about her childhood, Pond manages to foreground the memory, conflict, or anecdote that most immediately demands our attention while highlighting the emotional and scenic background of the moments she is so vividly and beautifully capturing. In “I’m a Young Cowboy and Know I’ve Done Wrong,” the speaker emerges from a river to have her mother tie a denim shirt around her neck as her father sings nearby. She goes on to confide, “What my father could not give my mother // she gave to herself.” In “At the Sunoco in West Virginia,” Pond wanders the aisles of a gas station upon being left behind by her father. After he returns, the speaker notices
the woman watching our reunion with her hands
over her mouth, relief that I am not actually abandoned,
although at some point, I will be, we will all be, as she knows,
as she too has been abandoned. I am eleven and lucky. No one is yet dead.
It will be months before anyone dies . . .
In “Like Rain,” the collection’s opening poem, Pond’s father uses a shovel to dig her out of the snow before she identifies “the invisible illness growing inside me.” And in “Driving Through Mystic,” Pond concludes the first section of Fieldglass by describing her brother’s external articulations of inward turmoil (“Shut up, my brother used to say to the air. Shut up, shut up. / But I could never hear the song inside his head.”) before gesturing toward the landscape and future outside their car: “Happiness was there, though out of reach, like a river, / tracing the land alongside us.” What Pond accomplishes in these poems—and the entire collection—combines the delicate artistry of photography with the raw realism of a home video. Without compromising the innocence, tenderness, or intimacy at the center of these heartbreaking recollections, Pond primes her reader the strain of quiet trauma that—along with more tenderness and intimacy—permeates Fieldglass and imbues it with emotional stakes and boundless grace.
Throughout Fieldglass, Pond capitalizes on the tension and foreboding she so skillfully and economically establishes in the collection’s first few poems—but always with a sense of slow-release and restraint. Indeed, like so many of the writers she appears to have learned under (such as Henri Cole and Honor Moore) and to have emulated (like Louise Glück and Franz Wright, both of whom Pond quotes in the book’s epigraphs), Pond has mastered the art of being understated without being the least bit underwhelming. The result is an immensely rewarding experience in which the reader is never left without something in which to find beauty or meaning. In “Tatiana” (one of three incredible persona poems written in the voice of Anastasia Romanov) a moment of sexual curiosity and discovery occurs alongside the recognition that “Outside the castle, the kingdom / fluttered apart”—which sets up a dichotomy that undergirds much of Fieldglass. Rarely do we come away from these poems without bearing witness to some sort of gentle (though not always pleasant) revelation, and always with the awareness that these revelations are being experienced in a kingdom fluttering apart—or in the aftermath of it having fluttered apart some time ago.
Fieldglass does what the best collections grounded in autobiography and confession tend to do: interrogate not only the source of conflict, suffering, and trauma, but also pay homage to what enables us to find comfort and healing—be it people, moments, places, or one’s own self. Over the course of seven sections (each consisting of between five and eight poems), Pond weaves together an intricate quilt of forces that have hurt her or those she loves. Among them: mental illness, abusive and dysfunctional relationships, sexual assault, loneliness, abandonment, and addiction. The careful but not overdetermined curation behind the collection allows the reader to intuit these aspects of Pond’s life without needing to determine the exact source of the conflict being explored in a given poem. The result is a narratively and thematically informed collection that shrewdly embraces the poetic sequence’s potential for a cohesive narrative experience but avoids any pitfalls that could leave us feeling as if we’ve read nothing more than a memoir in strictly anecdotal verse.
In addition to how organic and conversational Pond’s utterances tend to feel, it’s clear that she’s capable of skillful rhetorical maneuvers that pull together various thematic and technical strains. Take “Epilogue,” which begins with the speaker recounting, “The boy that took pictures of me being raped / died a year ago // when he drove his truck into a pond.” Initially, the speaker appears to revisit this trauma—an already horrific experience compounded by the complicity of a cruel bystander—indirectly, with a sense of detachment and interiority. (It’s worth noting, however, that she partially accounts for this with one of many sharp asides: “So often one has to tone down the truth / in order to be believed.”) Yet Pond makes short work of expanding the scope of her reflection on the lingering effects of gender-based violence while scenically and rhetorically expanding the poem by addressing an unspecified “you”:
The truth is, I was always scared of men.
What destroyed me that night
had been destroying me all along.
Now perhaps you understand
why I never told you about this.
I liked what you saw when you looked at me.
I liked telling you stories about the women I’d been with,
I liked turning you on.
I told you all kinds of things. When you left,
I didn’t eat for a month.
I couldn’t brush my teeth
without throwing up.
Part of what works so well in this poem (and the collection as a whole) is the tonal ambiguity regarding the speaker’s relation to her trauma—as well as how it’s shaped her relationship with romance and intimacy. There’s also a complicated dynamic at play as it pertains to how she relates to this person she’s with, as the speaker lets us into the process of reinitiating herself in romance and intimacy. The shifts throughout the poem usher us into new thematic and imagistic territory, always enriching the text while further complicating the emotional tenor and leaving us more to wrestle with. We see as much in the poem’s final turn:
Here’s the dream I never told—
I wake alone in the grass. I laugh
because I am terrified. It is you
who finds me, puts the towel around me tenderly,
carries me inside.
It isn’t clear whether the person being addressed is the subject of a lasting romance, nor do we know the exact nature of the relationship, particularly since there appear to be references to multiple lovers throughout the collection. But the fact that the poem ends with an articulation of fondness and tenderness after engaging so deeply in trauma suggests the possibility of comfort and resolution, or the closest thing possible at the present juncture. “Epilogue” begins with a reference to the death of one of the speaker’s abusers, but the poem’s final action (though occurring within a dreamscape) is one that conveys care and safety—and the possibility that such things can pass between two people. It’s as if Pond is proving to us—while reminding herself—what she writes in “Blue Angels Air Show”: “It’s okay to love what’s still alive.”
Even writing all this feels like I’m only scratching the surface of the towering talent that Pond showcases in Fieldglass. Perhaps it’s notable that the two poems I feel most compelled to excerpt in closing inhabit similar worlds, as they both begin with scenic descriptions before pivoting to interrogations that showcase very disparate tonal registers (of which Pond has many that she executes effectively). In “Dispersal,” Pond describes returning to a town, before shifting the poem’s focus:
I was afraid to forgive you, alone, narcotic
in that collapsing house. Bandstand glowing
like a dollhouse in a dream. You were a child
with me. Each year I came home from the city
and the landscape seemed less lucid.
The ice broke and reformed.
The moon stood watch over my motel,
like a sister appearing silently in the doorway.
Such taut couplets and lyrically fresh similes are among Pond’s greatest currencies—as is further demonstrated in “Master Bedroom,” the final poem in the collection’s fourth section that forms perhaps the most satisfying sequence of poems I’ve read in a long time. Pond begins with a description of a rainy evening before executing yet another skillful pivot toward the interior:
Tired of the upright world, a loon slides
gracefully under. I am not so easily won.
The old fears squat quietly, hands folded,
inside my stomach. Oh, what could you do
to me now. The hound with the humped
torso, see how he sleeps at my side.
Some nights I run naked from bed
and put on the trees like green raincoats.
It’s the oldest dream. I’m not asking permission.
Whereas Pond uses the direct address in “Dispersal” to grapple with a heartbreakingly complex dynamic that necessitates both gradual forgiveness and a sense of sisterhood that only the moon can provide, “Master Bedroom” sees Pond turning to address her “old fears” with a sense of resolve and rebellion. It’s a compelling moment of self-assertion, and the poem provides us with one of the only uninterrupted snapshots of interiority and solitude in the entire book—as it’s one of the only pieces in which Pond doesn’t bring in another person by way of memory or apostrophe. That it reads so powerfully is as much a testament to the vividness of the individual poem as it is a testament to the vividness of the other modes Pond employs throughout Fieldglass. Pond is a poet of lyrical multiplicity—for she, her revelations, and her observations are each the sum of various experiences borne out of various states of innocence. But this multiplicity also manifests itself in how Pond lets us into the many facets of her life that have enabled her to see and live her way through the various stages of recoveries, both singular and lifelong. Naturally, she is at the center of it all, but we also bear witness to the restoration that comes from female friendships and solidarity (which “Winter Elegy” captures beautifully), the reminder of good possibility that comes from new love, and the impartiality and forgiveness of the places and spaces where we find a momentary or permanent home. To fully appreciate all of this, to be broken down and restored alongside Pond, is to read Fieldglass carefully and multiple times. Experiencing Fieldglass once is rewarding because it’s a very good book of poetry; experiencing it again and again makes me feel like I’m receiving the gift offered in the final lines of “March 9th, Dusk”:
But now that you’re here, why not
take my heart. Sandstone, stuffed full
of letters, jammed and trampled and fortified
as the Western Wall. Go on. It’s the smallest corner
with the highest stakes. We’ll die soon
anyway. I’m giving it to you to take.
Jon Lemay is an MFA candidate at Syracuse University, where he is an Editor-in-Chief for Salt Hill Journal. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Salamander, Bodega, Prelude, DIALOGIST, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. Jon also co-hosts Pat & Jon on Their Best Behavior, a podcast about film and music. You can find him on Twitter @yawnlemay and on Instagram @jonlemay, and you can find more of his work at linktr.ee/jonlemay.