EILEEN R. KINCH. Gathering the Silence. Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, 2013. Pp. 25. $12.00 (U.S.)
There’s much to savor in the 21 poems making up Eileen R. Kinch’s Gathering the Silence. A Quaker from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Kinch draws on heritage and experience to engage ideas of contrast and change: silence and noise, belonging and separation, faith and doubt. The poems aren’t long—only one spans two pages—and follow no traditional meter or rhyme structure: some are in stanzas or blocks of text, some are slim columns of short lines, and others stretch breathlessly across the page. In essence, however, they’re deeply formal: the clean sentences break gently across orderly lines without fragmentation or heavy lyricism, and the restrained voice and thematic focus remain largely consistent.
This is why it’s interesting that the opening poem (“Crashing the Choir Rehearsal at the Baptist Church”) stands apart from the rest of the collection. Its narrative is straightforward, contrasting the speaker’s quiet presence with the noisy flamboyance of the Southern Baptist church she enters. The women of the congregation (“It was not my church, and they were not my people”) embrace and welcome the speaker, who sheds, with jacket, her usual mode of worship to participate in a new singing experience. Here, God joins the congregation as “a mighty wind” rather than that “still small voice” traditional peace churches tend to recognize and, possibly, prefer. Kinch doesn’t return to the setting or mood in the following poems. It’s almost as though she’s throwing down a challenge: this is for contrast; this is what I’m not.
In her strongest poems, Kinch uses image and phrase to convey meaning rather than explanation or abstract summary; in short, when the reader is trusted to read, the result is compressed and complex poetry that falls somewhere between the metaphysics of Donne and the modernist confessionalism of Elizabeth Bishop or James Wright. The best example of this might be the lovely “Mapping,” in which the speaker invites the reader (“Friend, try this”) to navigate “the split second between lost and lostness” while tracing familiar tributaries on a map. The written word is relinquished (“forget your books”) for experience and consciousness, and water becomes the conduit for multiple archetypes: the creation story and the cradle, the well of living water, and the coffin. Biblical phrasing and pacing impart a liturgical rhythm, and the strong ending lines meander off downstream rather than close the poem; even the final punctuation mark is conspicuously and intentionally absent.
Poems with similar impact include “Fermentation,” in which the violent transformation of cabbage into kraut becomes a metaphor for Christ’s bruising death and resurrection, and “Lifeblood,” which faces loss with an elemental and devastating honesty. When the poem opens, the speaker’s grandmother is explaining menstruation with comforting brusqueness. The final lines find the speaker standing by the grandmother’s new grave. Kinch refuses to descend into sentimentality, relying on the conceit of blood to create tension and power; the parallel of prosaic monthly bleeding and that final fatal emptying we all face.
The poetic voice occasionally falters in the collection, usually when the writing is doing what it’s expected to rather than what it might do; that is, when possibility is jettisoned for acceptability. In “Where the Worlds Come Together” (even without the explanatory title), the reader’s attention is firmly directed to juxtaposition: a coffee shop in which “German Baptists… find a table next to long-haired college students” and “English… and Dietsch” can be heard together. But any contrast feels less unlikely than contrived. What we’re told is a paradox doesn’t believably result in “a fierce, beautiful song,” but in a reductive snapshot that’s both familiar and faintly patronizing. Compare this with the more effective “Angel of the Outhouse,” in which an otherwise homeless man inhabits (and commandeers) the outhouse connected to the Friends’ meeting house. We aren’t told this is an interesting dichotomy or that it’s both amusing and poignant; we’re simply shown his living quarters and interactions: “He has cushions, a frying pan, / and a radio… When we knock on the door / to use the facilities, he growls, / Make it quick, and leaves us to it.” The speaker doesn’t comment on the flawed gift he gives her in the third stanza, choosing to simply describe it. The closing lines, as a result, are more powerful because of what’s unexplained: “At night / I listen to the headless angel / singing in the dark.”
Gathering the Silenceis both title and intention, perhaps. Emerging from the text in myriad forms, silence reveals itself as “moving breath” (“Waiting Worship”), as “this gift of nothing” that is snow (“Winter”), as the otherness of being “an inside outsider” (“At Home in Lancaster County, PA”), as absence, as loss, as death, as writing and recording and utterance. Gathering these armfuls of silences is impossible, the poems seem to say, but how not to try? And in witnessing such an attempt, we find much that is beautiful, strong, and true.
Author: Michael Courtney
Michael Courtney received her M.F.A in creative writing with a concentration in poetry from George Mason University and taught the poetry workshop at Eastern Mennonite University from 2002-2017. She is a member of Community Mennonite church, Harrisonburg, VA.