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Amy Fleury. Sympathetic Magic. Southern Illinois UP, 2013.

Amy Fleury’s second poetry book is a fine, powerful collection—one that is simply magical in its musicality and its imagery. Through consonance and very active language, one with strong verbs and surprising sonic invention, she is able to capture the beauty of the heartland, moving from poems of solitude to poems of engagement. The subject matter of her work runs the gambit from poems of adolescent experience and the natural world to the sobering illness of a father from cancer.

A poems such as “Verdure” reads:

Something burst out that was unwanted—

the unchecked verdure of temper, a riot
of pollen and sweat. Beside prim tulips, peonies’

greening knots explode to tender shreds.
Bees hover, nuzzling cankered buds spread

open to the thrumming sun.
And in “A Brief History of Barbed Wire,” Fleury writes:

Acres were platted and plotted and plowed.
The fly-vexed cattle of the dominion

were herded, made to graze given pastures.
Now a deputation of starlings alights the fence,

which does not hold snowmelt, pollen or smoke,
not the hawk, not the shadow of the hawk.

Evenings the strung wire thrums a hymn of wind.

The poet’s attention to details and imagery is so wonderfully rendered in a poem such as “Farm Auction” where she lists the various contents of the farm being sold, capturing the sentimental attachment to each item. Apparently the farmer and his wife have died and thus the need for the sale.

Yes, we’ve come to haul it all away—
their nests of pillows and quilts
and feather ticks, the glazed plates
and bread crocks, a washtub rimed
with bluing, the saltcellar and gravy boat,
her cross-stitch sampler and figurines,

And later:

Inside, the smell of silage still clings
to his chambray shirt hung
on the backdoor peg after choring.
How, in stocking feet, he loved to step
on the warm place where the dog had lain,
where dilapidated hips collapsed her
in a sleeping, yellow heap.

The poet closes with:

Now all is echo where once they sat
together with the ledger, adding columns
of crop yields and prices per bushel,
or thumbing rosaries like they shelled peas—
dutiful, dutiful to the ceaseless seasons,
to their tillage and cattle and kin.
Through the window screen comes little gusts
and the sound of the gavel coming down.

All the elements of poetry, as defined by Mary Kinzie, are here in perfect harmony to present a work that is fully-realized, emotionally rich, and rewarding. But less than a mere collection of pleasing nature poems, these poems have true power to shock and move. Consider a poem such as “Sister Anonymous” about a girl, the victim of a savage murder:

They discovered the dead girl
in a culvert, blood corsaging
her white fluttering blouse,
an embarrassment of bloated
limbs, broken teeth, a face
gemmed over with scabs.
Nearby ants scribble their hill,
beginning a campaign
for her last moist places.

And a poem as graphically compelling as “Grand Mal” about a seizure the speaker’s father has:

an electric arc spasms the body
into gnashings and flailings
and thrashings, and she tries
to keep you from falling,
but you do fall, an ugly thud
on the floor, where she kneels

In fact, Section IV of her book deals primarily with the illness of her father. In a truly beautiful poem “Magnetic Resonance” the poet contemplates the tumor in her father’s brain, which leads her on a remembrance of his past life.

In the hospital corridor, we hold
my father’s films against fluorescent light
to see the soft pearl his brain has shaped
inside itself. We wonder what memory
is the grit around which it has formed,
this tumor that causes a once-sensible
man to slur and lurch…

She writes in retrospect:

…Or maybe back to his summer
on harvest crew, raking the acres of wheat
behind a combine, singing Buddy Holly
into the heat and dust of South Dakota.
Away from home, he thinks on girls
and chrome-finned cars and not much else,
glad to drink beer with the fellows
With an economy of language she expertly describes a father’s past life, giving us a sense of his character and his experience. There is a visual intensity to this work. The poet celebrates life and understands mortality.
In “Ablution” the speaker contemplates her father’s body as she gives him a bath:
so I might scrub his shoulders and neck
suds sluicing from spine to buttock cleft.
Like a child he wants a washcloth
to cover his eyes whiles I lather
a palmful of pearlescent shampoo
into his craniotomy-scarred scalp
and then rinse clear whatever soft hair
is left.

Time and again her imagery captures succinctly the key emotions of the poems. Whether it is the “memory” that forms the grit around which the tumor, this soft pearl, has formed to the hazy lobes and folds of his brain, where she tries “…to locate the place where memory strays,/where he’s stowed the earlier hours of today.”
In short this book is a true accomplishment—one I would heartily recommend.

-Walter Holland