I have always been fascinated with women poets who reach back into the past, snatch both history and myth, and retell stories that have been buried or pushed aside by time. (See my review of the Mary Alexandra Agner’s chapbook, The Doors of the Body). Margaret Bashaar with her first chapbook, Barefoot and Listening, (Tilt Press) is one of those poets.
Bashaar starts out her collection with a poem titled simply, “Sita”. In this work, we see a being “found at a construction site of 376, unearthed by a backhoe/naked kicking infant with no mother but the dirt she breathed/skin the color of red clay.” Already, we know that the women in this collection are not the traditional women of myth — they are beings of grit and dirt, real flesh. And what follows are other poems that take on various myths. For example, Kalypso makes two guest appearances in this slim collection. In “Kalypso,” the heroine is described as a devoted being: “She has cut her feet/on forest paths that lead her to him/with fistful of constellations to lay at his left/while he sleeps and his hair is like fire.” In another poem, “Kalypso Speaks” she says this about Odysseus, “I do not need winged feet/to tell me I am just a stop/on his journey home.”
I enjoyed all of the familiar characters found in Bashaar’s poems; however, I must say that my favorite poems were the ones that place seemingly contemporary women in more surreal situations. For example, in “The Girl Who Would Blot Out the Sun” she depicts a girl who “hates the dark spots the sunlight makes/so she’s building a satellite/to block it out. She hides it in her garage/under a blue tarp between/the tool chest and the lawn mower.” In “After the Cold Snap” a lonely figure explains that “everything is like breathing when she sits alone” and with “Forehead pressed to the window/she breathes on panes of glass, ties knots in the curtain tassels.” And finally, “Barefoot and Listening” is a love poem of sorts, opening with the lines, “When I do not know if I am a stone or a doe/you gather up handfuls of pebbles/give them to me to collect in my pockets.”
I cannot end this short review without mentioning my absolute favorite poem, “The Giraffe Girl.” This poem begins with the lines: “April wears a garland of dandelions/on Sunday mornings and sits/with her legs open, strips/oranges with her teeth while she waits/for sweet potatoes and ovulation.” This poem displays a young woman — a little lost, a little dreamy — who finds hope and protection in her imaginative “blue-haired girls who slid/across her knuckles like silk/a Padaung woman” yet returns to the reality of her life to count “brush strokes on the ceiling.”
Whether she is looking at past myths or capturing the abstract feelings of contemporary women, Bashaar excels at the surreal. In spite of the fact that Bashaar chooses to write about feelings and ideas that could easily fall into categories of cliches’, every image, every line is surprising. In my opinion, Bashaar, whose work has also just appeared in the poetry anthology, Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25, is one to watch.