Book Review: The Green Light (Kathi Wolfe)

Reviewed by Linda Cronin

Kathi Wolfe, an award-winning poet, has recently completed her second book of poems called The Green Light. Wolfe was a finalist in the 2007 Pudding House Publications Chapbook Competition and Pudding House went on to publish her chapbook Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems in 2008. This second collection contains a strong narrative thread that connects one poem to the other and leads the reader to continue to the end of the book.

In The Green Light (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Wolfe tells the story primarily of two characters, Stan and Rita. She includes several poems from the point of view of their children. The story begins with the beginning of Stan and Rita's romance. In "At the Dance," Wolfe describes the first meeting between Stan and Rita at the White Horse Tavern. She writes that neither believed they would find love in that South Jersey town

Until Stan heard Rita's laugh
from across the room,
sounding like velvet, bells –
champagne bubbling,
and Rita saw Stan's smile
and looked into his Clark Gable eyes. (Wolfe 1).

The story continues to describe the relationship and the problems they encounter as well as the birth of their children, a girl and a boy.

Wolfe describes Stan, a veterinarian, as a hard-working man who enjoys a few beers or a scotch at the end of the evening. Neither Stan nor Rita are specifically described as religious, although Stan was raised Jewish while Rita was raised Christian. Religion appears to be something they could take or leave. In "Atonement", Wolfe writes "Stan never wanted God, especially during the High Holy days. / He craved unholy day pleasures, swapping racing tips…" (Wolfe 2). In "Cheesesteak at Pat's" the poem describes the problems their different religions are causing as they are trying to arrange the wedding. Neither the rabbis nor the priests think the two should marry. To many people the couple appears to be mismatched simply because of their religions, which was common in that time. Wolfe writes "Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage / but not for a Jew and gentile, everyone said, / your children will be mongrels. " (Wolfe 3)

But religion is not the only problem they encounter when trying to marry. Many people feel they should not be married because Rita has diabetes and believe she should not have children. "Love and marriage go together like salt and pepper, /but not with diabetes, everyone said, / you couldn't have children. Your union / would be unhappy ever after." (Wolfe 3) Rita's diabetes appear again and again throughout the manuscript – in "If I Have To Leave:" "Now, in a swirl / of insulin, cold sweat / and Life Savers," (Wolfe 4). In "For Once in His Life:"

… pouring
orange juice down her throat
when her sugar was low,
checking her feet
to make sure they weren't blue, (Wolfe 12).

In "Monster:" "If she forgets and her sugar goes crazy, she won't be able to carry a tune. It's scary to see Mom like that – sweating – shaking – forgetting where she is." (Wolfe 15).

Wolfe excels at setting the poems firmly in the 1950's and early 1960's. She has recreated the atmosphere and the attitudes of the time perfectly. She often describes or mentions products and attitudes that were common at the time. Ovaltine makes an appearance as do Orphan Annie, Valentino, Einstein and the March of Dimes. Stan mentions that "Hitler was gone, Harry was giving them hell," (Wolfe 2) She often mentions the stars that were popular when describing Rita and Stan. Rita is described as a beauty like Rita Hayworth while Stan appears to be more like Bogart.

And at times you get the sense that Rita wishes she were in the movies or at least living in Hollywood, living the big life. In "From the Top of the Stairs," their daughter describes how Rita and Stan are dancing the Calypso:

a dance they learned from seeing
Mr. Harry Belafonte at a club one evening
where they drank two bottles of champagne
and smoked and stayed out late (Wolfe 9).

When Stan is angry after finding out that Rita was out with another man while their daughter was at Girl Scouts. Rita yells at Stan" You used to dance with me. I may be sick, / but I'm still a woman." (Wolfe 11).

Stan and Rita have two children and there are several poems from the point of view of one of the children. Wolfe does a great job at keeping the poem grounded in the child's perspective. She describes the world of Stan and Rita from a child's point of view. Often times the children are confused by what they overhear or what their parents say. "Scrambled Eggs" describes a snow day from the point of view of a seven-year-old child. When her mother attempts to explain why she has to go in the hospital, the child says

"I only know
that if I keep eating
my scrambled eggs
and buttering her toast,
my Mom won't die." (Wolfe 8).

When the child overhears a fight between her parents Wolfe writes in "I Have a Secret:" "Why would Mom tell a lie? I go to Mom and Dad, /trying not to cry. Why are you so mad,/ I ask. (Wolfe 11). In "Monster," Josh describes how his parents can tackle any foe as long as they're around and healthy. In each of these instances, Wolfe shows how well she handles describing the world from a child's point of view. These poems are poems to be noticed.

Later in the manuscript, Rita talks to her daughter about dealing with "The Mean Reds" – the mean reds are when you are depressed or down and have to talk yourself into a better mood. Rita says,

Like Holly Golightly,
smart and sad,
you'll have to use
all you have
to shake off
the mean reds (Wolfe 16).

In "Yellow Collie" Wolfe describes a dog who is undergoing scientific experiments to discover a cure for diabetes. Wolfe calls the dog a hero and tries to justify the use of animals in experiments. She writes: "Entering the lab room, you had no idea /you'd be doing the best work of your life." (Wolfe 18). I am not sure I believe in Wolfe's justification for giving a dog diabetes to try different medications. While I agree that these dogs are heroes, I hate to think of any animals undergoing unnecessary pain.

I believe The Green Light succeeds as a narrative tale, telling the story of Stan and Rita and their eventual children. Wolfe includes poems from the point of view of each member of the family allowing the reader to get different perspectives on the family. Certain ideas appear again and again throughout the book: Rita's diabetes, her desire to party and dance, the children's fears and Stan's worry over Rita. Wolfe has created a collection of poems that are firmly grounded in the 1950's and early 1960's and which tie neatly together. For people who enjoy reading narrative poems, The Green Light will provide a nice escape from today's world.