Delightfully accessible and visceral, The Mayapple Forest surges with poetic grace, like a catfish, moonlit, august, swimming into readers’ imaginations. Kim Ports Parsons develops wistful imagery, honed lyricism, and endearing pathos throughout her short lyric poems and long narrative poems. Inhabited by fascinating animals, like barn owls, and heartfelt humans, like her mother and sister, the worlds she creates, ultimately, represent her desire to thrive on a planet still swathed in exultation.
The Mayapple Forest incorporates numerous, spellbinding descriptions of nature. In “Barn Owl,” Parsons depicts the titular creature in action:
Most think sight her strength, and it’s true—she can fin
a whisker in a haystack—but her hearing is so sharp,
so especially keen, in fact, that if the window’s left open
when the moon is full, and the frogs finish their chorus,
and the air is still and cool as a fresh sheet,
then perhaps, as she glides on tawny wings
simply because she can, free and satisfied, not yet
brooding a second clutch, she lands and preens
on the rooftop, daylight still an hour away,
turns her neck in the hush and hears,
without the slightest interest, the murmured notes
we offer, stirring in our nest.
In a single sentence spanning three quatrains, she paints an engrossing image of an owl hunting, which is to say, living in the moment. In fact, all the creatures throughout the collection, especially birds, symbolize Parsons. She yearns to live creatively in the moment, “free and satisfied” as the barn owl. But growing up often leads one to reevaluate the past, disillusionment a hallmark of an ever-developing life, at times playful, at times tense. In “Mermaid Summer,” Parsons describes her younger self swimming:
I found it cleaning out the cedar chest,
twelve inches of ponytail held by a pink
band, thick and sinuous, streaked white
and gold with chlorine and sun.
Water my element that summer.
While Mama read and Dad fished,
and my sister sneaked kisses behind
the dunes, I just avoided land.
I held my breath, looked up through ripples
to sky, practiced dolphin arcs, slowly released
each pearl of air, floated my compact
body with arms outstretched, at home
inside my skin. I learned to jump
incoming waves, bobbed among swells,
let human voices wash away, listened
for songs from underwater caves.
She, however, juxtaposes this scenic image with a subsequent realization: “Next year, my breasts began to bud. By ten, my blood / began to run. I learned new meanings of the word shame. / I told my mother I wanted my hair cut off.” Ultimately, she embraces her transformation from young girl to determined woman. Becoming and then living as a determined woman—a noteworthy, feminist motif—intersects almost every other principal motif in the collection, including the motif of family solidarity. Indeed, her heartwarming relationship with her family, especially her other female family members, is one of the most formidable, thematic throughlines in the collection. In “Cool Glass of Water,” she writes about a time in her past when she ate jam with her mother:
I am ten, and I am spading up the last gobs from the kettle
with the wooden spoon, and I am in love with her, and if I could,
I would drink that memory like a cool glass of water every day of my life.
Nostalgia itself can be obnoxiously sentimental. But Parsons adds depth to her reflections by showing a major downside to nostalgia: like a ponderous picture frame, nostalgia can crop out the parts of a moment one may not wish to consider, perhaps out of fear. Like the wind dragging a flurry of autumn leaves down a cobblestone alleyway, moments of shared love come and go so fast. As such, Parsons’ poetry inspires readers to cherish life and language as much as possible. And this includes loved ones. In “I Watch My Sister Harvest Lavender,” Parsons states her appreciation for her sister with apt end-stops:
She scatters the stems in her large brown basket
and takes another sip of coffee. She turns
to me and laughs, tells me she’s lucky.
I think: You taught me how to swim.
You walked with me across a snow-crusted field.
Your body swayed before me, shaping into a woman’s.
You cupped a wildflower in your palm and gave me its name.
The Mayapple Forest by Kim Ports Parsons is a laudable debut. In polished poem after polished poem, she examines the wonder around her, exciting and inspiring readers. In “May the Particles of My Body Travel the Endless Conduits,” she talks directly to Vernon, a former teacher, about humanity:
I wish I had the right words
to part the sea of all the nonsense and save us all
from drowning. Quiet those commandments.
Press my ear to earth and listen hard.
A network of souls whispers, and the dark matter stretches,
an infinite stream we swim and swim.
That’s one image from which we’re made, Vernon.
The alder grove’s another. Try to remember
what cannot nor ever will be named.
All that we are is this river of light.