by Helen Losse
IN THE PALMS OF ANGELS
Terri Kirby Erickson
Press 53, 2011
In her third book, In the Palms of Angels, Terri Kirby Erickson uses accessible language to write about everyday subjects. Her poems, however, are in no way clichéd, and she does not back away from difficult subjects. She’s a southern poet who writes tales about her extended family and unique variations on “southern tales [and characterizations]—folk myths of the Great Smokies,” as Ron Powers, wrote in the “Introduction.” Like others, Erickson writes about what she sees. She is a watcher of people.
Although the poems cover light and common-place, as well as heavy, serious subjects, Erickson maintains a positive tone that implies hope no matter what she writes about. In the first poem, “Topsail Beach,” a flock of gulls cry, “Joy, // joy, joy,” and in the final poem, “At the Drive-In,” “the old man gaz[es] up at [the stars], smiling.” The stars become what the gulls were—“pinpoints of light.” Light symbolizes joy, and that’s Erickson’s way of looking at life. She finds joy everywhere. Erickson, a keen observer of life, brings to her poems a great empathy for humanity.
In “At the Nursing Home,” a man sits in a wheelchair,
as if he’d drawn the curtains
…and the woman
he loves [is] holding a wine glass, laughing.
“Empathy” (for Felicia) contains the lines:
Close as two women crooning into the same
microphone, they sing their sorrows
to one another in a grocery store parking lot,
sharing sadness like a loaf of warm bread—
eyes luminous as pearls formed by her friend’s
In “After the Diagnosis,” a woman “wonders what she will feel / when her breasts are gone, [knowing s]he was happy / once, without them”; in “Depression,” a young mother “sees nothing but // the dull brown jar where she spend her days alone”; and in “Cling Peaches,” a poem inspired by observation in her work as a Cancer Center volunteer, she deals with the emotions of loss. On the day following the one where a spouse almost died, the “wife” or narrator says:
I want to tie you
To the bedrails, stand guard….
Instead, I feed you cling peaches….
But Erickson writes on a lighter note, too. Her fascination is with people from all walks of life and in every kind of circumstance. In “Clovis McBride” she pens a clever depiction of gluttony, as she shows a feisty old woman observing people on bar stools, “getting bigger with every pancake // they shoved into their craws.”
And in “Road Crew,” readers see an ordinary lunch-break made new with metaphor.
…[T]he road crew eat their lunch…
around this cool patch of earth like cowboys
vying for the best spot beside a campfire
Like irises soaking up rainwater,
these blue-jean clad laborers quench their thirst…
A man shares an apple with his granddaughter (“Granny Smith Apple”). A woman gives her mother a sponge bath (“Sponge Bath”). A tired child falls asleep on the floor, while his mother talks on the phone (“Woman on the Phone”). The boy cannot leave her side, even in sleep. As a small child, he is “a sunflower,” and his mother is “his only source of light.”
And then there is the matter of faith, which is the actual source of hope and light in Erickson’s verse. Faith is also where the titular angels fit in. In the changing light of the stained glass windows, a man “was as blue as the lapis robes of saints [or] a rosy pink, / as if he were a cherub (“Hallelujah.”) In “Springtime In Beaufort,” the reader encounters a “boat / named Angel Ray.” And in “Wayfarer,” Erickson gives readers the description of a man who seems like:
[one] you’d see walking down a long
stretch of road,
[who] will soon find home, that place
more sacred than communion wafers
nestled in the palms
Just an ordinary man going through life—on his way home, which seems to him like heaven. But with that final clause, Terri Kirby Erickson hits the high note. She has written a few lines other poets envy. Her subjects are ordinary and her language accessible, but she knows how to write metaphors and make language soar in the right places, so that each character or situation becomes unique. Erickson’s other books were good, but her poetry improves with each one. In the Palms of Angels by Terri Kirby Erickson is a book both lovers of poetry and those new to reading it should consider.