What to Tell Joseme
by Lianne Spidel
Main Street Rag Publishing, 2011
Reviewed by David Barbour
“What to Tell Joseme” by Lianne Spidel is a collection of poems ostensibly written for Joseme McCloyer, an imaginary friend from the poet's childhood. Many years have passed since the two have parted ways, the author likely having outgrown the fanciful imagination of her youth and finding in relationships with real people what she sought through the fictional companion she created as a child. Yet she writes to Joseme here as though she were a real person. Through her poems she relates some of the many facets of life which she has witnessed and experienced in the years that they have been apart, and does so with a candor that is usually reserved for intimate friends.
The collection is divided into three sections: “Old Snapshots,” “Everyone Gets Displaced,” and “Who’s to Say You’re Nowhere?” The first poem, “Where Have You Been, Joseme McCloyer?” ties these themes together and forms a central core around which the rest of the work is developed. It is addressed directly to her childhood friend, and through it, the reader learns about the nature of their relationship. She tells Joseme that now would be a good time to return, entreating her to do so before the crab apple petals turn the sepia of old snapshots. Recalling the trip they made as children from which Joseme did not return, she searches for a reason why she did not. Rather than dwell on the past, however, she concludes simply that everyone gets displaced, asking who’s to say she’s nowhere and claiming that Joseme may well be more real than herself at this point.
The first section, “Old Snapshots,” contains memories of her childhood. Having grown up during the Second World War, her recollections range from children rushing to make snow angels before paperboys and dogs ruin the pristine surface to basement windows covered with blackout paper and “newsreels of prisoners shoveling skeletons into pits.” In “Breakfast Food, 1944” she describes a scene in the family kitchen during a morning meal. As the father contemplates the progression and development of the conflicts overseas, Spidel, a young child at the time, is drawn to the more immediate sensory experiences of orange juice, oatmeal, and brown sugar. Though she doesn’t fully grasp the complexities of politics and war, the gravity of the situation is not lost on her, as evinced when she succinctly states that “all we taste is terror.”
In “Destinations,” the last poem of the section, a wife and mother relaxing on the porch at night overhears the faint but unmistakable sounds of her husband sneaking out the back door and driving off in the night. The thread that connects them is stretched so gradually apart that neither is likely to know exactly when it is broken. This poem likely bears some similarity to the author’s relationship with Joseme, disappearing so gradually that she likely never realized it happened, and also serves as a segue into the next section, “Everyone Gets Displaced.” The poems contained within share a common theme of people ending up where they don’t belong. She compares the women in her exercise class to the models of French post-impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and her own image in a mirror to a Portrait of Madame Giroux by Van Gogh. She writes of a family driving past their old house and observing the changes from afar, a girl who dove into a river on an icy night, a spirit that still wanders through her house and an aging man whose memories are slipping away along with his identity. She describes people moved from the place they belong, trapped in a place they do not, and finding their minds displaced from their bodies while their consciousness remains.
The final section, “Who’s To Say You’re Nowhere,’ on the other hand, affirms that displaced or not, life goes on all around and we all stay connected in some way. Long after her father has died, she hears his breathing at the breakfast table and “knew by the timbre and cadence . . . that the nightmares had melted away and the demons had fled.” While on a long distance call with a close friend in ”Black Bean Chili” a chance observation of something on TV makes her realize that “in that moment [they] are just a shoulder width apart.” Even Emily Dickinson is included, making a mysterious appearance in the classroom the author was teaching in.
Of course we didn’t see her, but anyone
who was in the room that day
will tell you that she stood
in the doorway, wearing white.
There were no words–
Emily had long since had her say.
And now Lianne Spidel has also. Having had hundreds of individual poems published over the course of her life, Lianne Spidel had not yet put together a collection of her works into standard full-book manuscript. Claiming to have no rule to organization or sense of direction, she gave up on the idea, but was eventually spurred on by a friend who found common threads in many poems and laid out the three sections into which this collection is divided. Once the ground work was in place, Spidel quickly found that she was able to surpass the manuscript length of 48 pages and compile 72 pages for this, her first book-length collection. The breadth of human experience covered here, and the depth to which it is explored, should make this collection of interest to anyone.