Friday, August 18, 2006

Verse novels V: Rosellen Brown, "Cora Fry's Pillow Book"

This book is another one that I picked up in March, but I only just now got around to reading it. It pushes the envelope of what can be called a "verse novel," but there is enough story to it to make it clearly more than "just" a "sequence." Rosellen Brown writes in the first person here, but the speaker is Cora Fry, a woman who lives most of her life in Oxford, New Hampshire, where as an adult she is first a housewife and then a mail carrier. The narrative is basically the narrative of a life: children are raised, tensions between husband and wife are dealt with, and eventually Cora and her husband move to another town after he has gone through a period of unemployment. This story of a life makes the book more a novel than a sequence.

At the same time, the individual poems can mostly be read on their own, as well (which, it could be argued, makes it more a sequence than a novel). There are many vivid moments, as in a poem about Cora's children that contains this frightening thought for all parents:

And if I died
would they
remember me

This is followed a bit later by a a crisp poem acting out how the light from a new streetlamp would upset someone nearby who is not used to light shining in the window at night. Another memorable poem describes how a muskrat chewed off its leg to escape a trap, leaving behind only a leg for Cora's husband and son to find there. A third is about gardening and the gardener's uncertainty about the vegetables she plants:

Each year I doubt, each year they prosper.

The gardener's doubt, that is, does not influence the success or failure of the garden. (I have the same doubt when I tie-dye shirts: each time I doubt, each time they come out.)

There is a memory of her son on a merry-go-round, thinking that the "red and white horse" would "canter off across / the town green." At the same time, there is a much later poem about talking to adult children, remembering things, and noticing:

They have forgotten the childhoods we had
together, they remember only their own.

The book is actually two books: Cora Fry was apparently published much earlier; the 1994 edition that I have includes all of Cora Fry and then continues with the actual Cora Fry's Pillow Book. The two books cover different time periods (the former the housewife years, so to speak, and the latter the mail-carrier years) and are written in different forms (shorter lines in the former, much longer lines in the latter).

One of the more startling moments comes near the end of the second part, when Cora reflects on the lives of those who have lived in or near Oxford all their lives:

... I feel like a pilot
flying over the tiny, separate plots of our lives,
I see how the shapes we've worked so hard at carving out and cultivating
to look like no one else's begin to resemble each other. At fifteen thousand feet,
they blend, their borders run together, vague, finally invisible.

All in all, Cora Fry's Pillow Book is another fine addition to my list of verse novels.

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