David E Poston, Review of Laurie Kolp’s Upon the Blue Couch

by David E. Poston

Laurie Kolp
Winter Goose Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-941058-08-4

What sustained me through this lengthy first book—104 poems—was the image of Laurie Kolp reading the opening poem at Poetry Hickory and the tone of that poem’s closing lines. She read them with something between a twinkle and a steely glint in her eyes:

And the subtle scar
on my cleft chin,
the one you can only see
when I’m looking up?

Accent it.

“If You Paint My Picture” aptly introduces the tone, themes, and stance of the collection. The shift from “skin as pale as buttermilk, a touch of strawberry” to “ruffled by a smartass” signals how quickly these poems move from lyric to gritty. Though poetic touches will color and smooth what follows, they will not obscure it. We learn how that scar came to be, in “Rock Bottom,” and about many other scars and tears—and also joys.

“Prepare for disarray,” says the speaker, leading off an array of poems about love, mortality, despair, blue tarps, hurricanes, middle school boys, MRIs, disco balls, beauty, and serenity. We encounter beautiful images such as the opening lines of “Gibbous Orbit,” but also the opening line “I threw your testicles to the clouds.” There are ethereal lyric poems, but also poems about the fears arising when a spouse is late, or this image from “Helpless Victims of a Distracted Driver”:

That night,
sitting on the couch,
picking shards of glass
from baby’s head,
husband crying out
in pain.

At the low points, in poems dealing with tribulations and with doubts about self, others and even God, I was glad Kolp began with that confident, commanding, unabashedly honest poem.

The speaker in these poems addresses many different people: husband, daughter, son(s), mother, a toxic past lover, a friend, often the reader, and often herself. Early on, she expresses a thirst for “Something Better [t]han This Couch” and many poems describe her travails in search of it. Often there is a retreat to the blue couch for refuge, as in “Bits and Pieces of Truth in the Night” after a friend’s suicide. Ultimately, the blue couch comes to represent the nexus of whom and what she values most in the world and in herself. The homage to it that begins Part II reveals it as a creative catalyst for these poems, a focal point for the myriad of life experiences described in them. For me, the most poignant moment involving the couch is the conclusion of the poem “While She Stayed in New Orleans,” which personifies it as her most knowing but still truest friend.

The poems about struggles with alcohol, such as “To Watch Someone Else Drinking Death,” “When She’s Ready,” and “When I Was a Worm,” show its depths, and “While Waiting for a Table at the Bar” describes how close one can be to sliding back into them. However, this is the story of someone overcoming the disease. For all the self-recrimination of “Giving UP,” the poem’s speaker still empathizes with the suffering of others. After a series of poems expressing religious struggles, the poem “One Step at a Time,” in its appropriate twelve sections, chronicles a journey to grace.

In the domestic poems, even quotidian subjects are infused with that peace, joy and fulfilment. Poems such as “Sidereal Stars in First Love Eyes” will strike a chord with any parent wishing to prepare a daughter for heartache. That the romance is still there is expressed in poems such as “I Feel Your Presence” and “Advancements.” Sometimes the diction is overwrought, as in “Haunted by the Past,” but the passionate conviction of “Politicking with a Lobster” is undeniable. That poem, as well as “Phone Conversation with an OB/GYN Nurse,” conveys a powerfully-felt message with a humorous touch. That humorous touch is also deftly employed in “When Baby Comes Along” and “Spousal Communication and Forgetfulness”

Three poems kept drawing me back. The taut second-person narrative of “Consider Serenity” compelled me to imagine the impending confrontation. I admired how vivid description and a brilliant bit of unconventional punctuation heightened the intensity of “What Happened on Texas Highway 105.” In “About the Moon,” lines such as “…its opulence/in the funereal sky,/a petal in the wind…” both evoke the long tradition of such poems and make the contrasting conclusion, in diction reminiscent of traditional Chinese poetry, all the more powerful.

Poems sometimes teeter between sentimentality and bitterness, but that may be the bravest thing about them. That bravery is evident in the unflinching way the speaker of the poems addresses her subject matter—and even more so in the unflinching way she addresses herself. These poems are earned and deeply felt, often displaying technical skill and grace, always ringing true to human experience—to the way we all have wavered between hope and despair.

The poems in Part IV, dealing with her mother’s illness, show perhaps the most poetic command: the understated compactness of “Lack of Oxygen,” the dead-on accuracy of description in “Long-Term Stay,” the stark brevity of the last stanza of “When People Heard the News,” the apt use of the triolet form in “Chilled.” Lines such as “that cold bed of white noise” or “time hangs in a white sheet, a ghost” will linger with readers. And the speaker in “An Epiphany” compels this reader to believe the closing line could refer to herself as well.

At the Poetry Hickory reading, Laura Kolp spoke matter-of-factly about the autobiographical nature of these poems, with the demeanor of someone who had mastered her struggles and longings. One other powerful longing remains to be addressed here, her longing to be a “Poetic Danseuse.” In “Voiced,” we find these lines:

Poetry is…
the voice I’m scared to speak
unleashed in ways mystique
birthing words I need to hear,
that through past years of fear
formed a
̴throttlehold ̴

Through these poems, Laurie Kolp has indeed broken that throttlehold and unleashed a touching, beautiful poetic voice.

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