Book Review: Counting By Sevens (Ann E. Wallace)
Reviewed by Tricia Knoll
Ann E. Wallace's new poetry book, Counting By Sevens, came out from Main Street Rag in September 2019. What unites the three sections of this collection is the poet's compassion for those who suffer. As a constant reader of poetry, I'm usually drawn to the voices of women – and Wallace's poetry is some of the best I've read both in regard to craft and the emotional impact of each poem's subject. She evokes great empathy and tenderness about some difficult subjects that I believe most women understand. Which is not to say this is "women's" poetry, but rather that it called on me to respond from who I am – which is what poetry worth reading often does.
The first section, "America, Another Day" is a consistent treatment of the varieties of pain and fear we see playing out each day in the public arena. This is the America where a parent may worry during a classroom exchange of Valentines – not because a child's feelings may be hurt by being left out – but because the classroom itself has windows in the doors that could serve as a portal for an active shooter. Another poem records the feeling of a mother who dreads text messages from a school in the uncertainty of not knowing it if it will be an invitation to an open house or a notification of a lock down and police presence. This is "the another day" we are seeing over and over again.
Wallace uses strong imagery to describe these scenes we are witnessing: children sleeping under silver blankets, shoes laid out at the Capitol as memorials to the dead, a narrator picking cherries and then reading of deaths of men the police have shot. Mixed in are moments of tenderness: the senior citizen who was not forgotten when a terrible storm shook her living center. Mothers in these poems know mourning, whether they are orcas holding up a dead calf or a human mother fearing her child might become the victim of sexual assault. What registered for me was not an anger that motivates these poems, but rather the fear and compassion of a person who has heard the sirens and knows for whom they wail. And, who has heard the unwelcome words of well-meaning doctors.
These first poems also look at the America we have inherited: an elegant haibun describes how graves of indigenous people became a park of "ethereal stillness," another poem asks us to look inside the walls of Medgar Evers' home.
This poet is a professor of English along with other professional achievements, and the second section, "Interlude," delves into more personal, private spaces than the first. The poet asks what darkness may lurk inside the house where the firefighter's siren does not go, the stories of hurt that are untold. She describes a dream of trying to outrun a Zamboni machine, records how neighbors come out of their houses after an intense storm has passed and find a stately sycamore heaved over in the street – we are called to think about the aftermath to the community. Overtones of some danger, concern or sadness lurk in what at first seems like they might be rather ordinary passages of childhood – piano lessons, berry picking, saving the first milk teeth that fall out, skinned knees, the making of prom dresses and Halloween costumes. Ancestry comes into play with the making of doughnuts as simple family gifts with a story line of legacy behind it.
Wallace's website states that her scholarly writing specializes in illness narratives, traumatic memory and community formation – all of which inform her poignantly accessible poetry.
Section III, "Body Rising" suggests how the poet came to experience the empathy her poetry evokes. Some short, almost staccato poems, focus on hours of medical therapy and diagnosis including what is frightening and disorienting. The speaker is the "Good Patient" and defines what the uneasy pressure to be this feels like. The title of the entire collection comes from this section when the narrator is asked to count by sevens during some of the most difficult of the test procedures, being spun or as she describes it "being put through the wringer." A poem I read several times describes hair falling out from below her graduation mortarboard due to cancer treatments for ovarian cancer and ends with the words to commence. I loved the honesty and straightforwardness of this body (I use that word intentionally) of work that includes both humor and pathos. These poems are not screams; they are intelligent laments skillfully put in poetic forms which can come to an end which says,
that body rises that body endures.
And we hope so. With the poet.
Title: Counting By Sevens