Joan Joffe Hall's In Angled Light: Selected Poems present's a life's worth of writing and contains selections from Hall's eight chapbooks and two full-length collections (Curbstone Press and Alice James Books). The poems reflect the author's Jewish heritage and her feminist stance, but they are also marked by her membership in the Family of Humanity. They are by turns outraged, elegiac, lyrical, and comic.
Of In Angled Light, Wally Lamb (She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True) has said, "Readers just now discovering the verse of Joan Joffe Hall can take it from this longstanding admirer: she is a poet of extraordinary gifts. In Angled Light is informed by wry wit, fierce intelligence, and a warm-hearted love of life." And Bobbie Ann Mason (winner of the Hemingway Foundation Award) has commented, "The tone is sharp and edgy, with unflinching perceptions and witty surprises flying at you. You sit up straight. And the power of the poems accumulates; you know they add up to a special sensibility, a passionate personal voice that is very moving." Among the admirers of Joan Joffe Hall's work is Wendell Berry, who has commented, "I relish that the poems are spoken by a woman who is about to do something: tend the garden, go off to work, care for a child. That, I know, is not the sort of thing a man is supposed to say in public about a woman poet, but I wanted to say it, knowing how much I would like to be described as a domestic poet myself. As they carefully, relentlessly, understand what has been given them, these poems give their insights generously to us." Margaret Gibson, an erstwhile colleague of Joan Joffe Hall in the English Department at the University of Connecticut, has said this of In Angled Light: "Direct and compelling, these poems move with a spare grace that balances outcry, backtalk, silence, song, and story. Perhaps because Joan Hall does not accept easy answers to the worthy questions that arise in a life lived with an attention and an honesty that are unswerving, hers are poems that have intelligence and great heart."
Joan Joffe Hall has had a distinguished career as poet and teacher. After receiving degrees from Vassar and Stanford, she taught for forty years, mostly at the University of Connecticut, where she had a joint appointment in English and Women's Studies, teaching literature, film, and creative writing, as well as serving on the executive board of the American Association of University Professors. She has published eighteen books of poetry and prose, including The Rift Zone (a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Prize) and Romance & Capitalism at the Movies (Alice James Books), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared widely in journals such as The Georgia Review, The Massachusetts Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Minnesota Quarterly. She is married to the writer David Morse and lives in Storrs, Connecticut.
Click here to read some sample poems.
The Antrim House seminar room offers notes, issues for discussion, and writing assignments. Click here to attend the seminar on In Angled Light.
|A WORLD INFESTED BY POTENTIAL
First comes love, they sang.
First comes love, then comes marriage,
then comes Joanie with a baby carriage.
When I was little they didnt
tell you right out how to get pregnant,
maybe it was kissing or toenail clippings.
Mix this and that and prestoa fat pram!
Maybe a little girl would rather have
only the baby, more familiar than sex;
shes been a baby, and growing big so fast
shes as drawn to miniatures (try to say
microscopic creepy crawlie over and over)
as to the giganticthe biggest lake,
longest river, highest mountain, none
of which shes ever seen. Looking down
from the high arch of the subway bridge
into Manhattan after the train car lights
have gone out with a threat and come back on
she sees cars so tiny they could be French fries,
Lionel trainyards, bug-people;
then the train descends, the scene shifts
and objects are recognizable,
as if shes mastered the tongue-twister
and it no longer stings. She hates it
when they sing, those bigger girls
skipping rope and counting babies;
thats all they know-how many children
will fit inside, girl babies with micro-
scopic eggs intact and waiting;
as if all you think about is boys
and your future is fixed if you
so much as talk to one. Creepy
warnings. Makes you jump.
The raspberry must be picked,
you tell me, at the right moment.
It falls into the palm
gently: the lightest touch of a finger
and it loosens,
staining our hands red.
Some of the berries are hardly ripe,
just growing lobes and fuzz, like young girls.
Every day the kid next door
roars by these bushes on his dirt bike
I follow you, cautious and awkward,
through poison ivy and burdock, deeper
into bushes where clusters explode.
You slide behind a wire fence
and hand berries over into a bowl
Ive carried out. Some you feed
me direct. Our mouths
and chins and shirts are marked.
Near sunset I notice for the first
time a scar on your upper lip, hidden
under the mustache as if it were a metaphor
for the long-withheld story
of your marriage.
Like any dumb male, you say, afraid
Ill say it first.
The light darkens,
bruising your cheekbones. Trying
to be clear we learn what hurts.
Soon, you promise, well gather
the fringed leaves for a healing tea
less bitter then ginseng.
You ask if we can be blood friends.
Thats for people who dont menstruate,
I say, and you ask if Id risk
being a blood friend with someone who doesnt.
In that slant light
you could say anything and I
would smile away like any woman in love.
At a Jewish wedding
the groom smashes a wine glass
under his heel
not as I once thought to signify
the hymen shattered at a stroke
but to recall
the destruction of the Temple
and centuries of the Disapora
ending at barbed wire.
As I paint my house,
focused on the wood grain
under each horizontal
stroke, I see refugees
lining documentary footage;
the camera pans quickly
but the faces are endless, alike,
dark; on the horizon
the glare of flames, famine.
This stroke of luck
I learned as a wartime child:
to be born here
and in a small slip of time
while children just like me
were gassed and burned
out of less lucky houses.
I called my left fist Hagar
and tortured it to cry.
I know my house both temporary
and well chosen: in the fireplace
only logs burn.
Once we were slaves in Egypt
my grandfather said,
which meant suffering for others,
Why does the woman gaze this morning
at a jug of flowers?
Her elbow is on the table, her fist
creases one side of her face.
Shes not studying flowers, she listens
to the birds, waits,
released from the slicing of time.
Like a swimmer crouched on the lip,
staring down at cold water
and shimmering tiles, she can say: Now,
now I will enter, now it will begin.
But though counting may summon her to the mark
at go she has still to plunge,
and once her legs uncoil
nothing can hold her back.
For the moment, however, her head
rests on the double stem of arm and neck.
The flowers face hermarigolds, mums,
fresh in their slight fragrance
cleaving the air
between what was and what will be.
Winter is coming,
sings the bird on the sill, weaving her
into the day ahead. She holds still
momentarily, creased in the hard work of dreams,
before rising to meet it.
Gradually he repossesses the apartment:
first the kitchen, tearing down the note
she stuck to the refrigerator: Ten years,
cook for yourself. He grows small
and cold, nourished on leftovers.
The cupboards empty. The baby downstairs
cries all night; in dreams
he must suckle infants.
He learns how eggs slide in the pan,
yolks tipping into breasts.
He rips out the electric range to buy
an old Glenwood stove with a wood-
burning oven and oils the iron cooking top
till it softens like flesh.
For the first time he knows
hes mortal: this stove will outlive him.
He works in the kitchen, darting out
to change a record or to sleep. The ring
in the toilet bowl becomes his;
the other rooms hover in the doorway,
vast unused space, as if a rib
has been removed,
yet the frame still stands.
Last, he faces the bed, strips the sheets;
but for thrift hed throw them out,
and because he needs to learn
the craft of washing. Im turning
into a woman, he marvels; then, Im becoming
a man. Oh God, make me what I could be,
not what I am.
the young couple quarrels, he wants
to hug them. He picks up their baby,
wet as it is, and dances it around
through the doorways. Gradually
he can feel the fontanel closing.
|IN SEARCH OF
In search of...water, Id have said,
since ours has been turned off today.
Im looking for a place to pee
and wash my hands. My husband
can pee outdoorsor would,
except not only are plumbers here,
but a tree crew, one of whoms a woman.
Down at the little local mall I use the john,
then take the newly laid sidewalk past
the motel where we put up wedding guests,
past cleaners and grocery (non-union),
backs of stores, walk through unfamiliar smells
and sunlight, a secret world, the pathway
wooded, water running by, ignore
the screech of small town traffic, pretend
Im in a safe country, or a new town.
Riding up from New London one night
on the train, we rumbled past the roads
from which on other trips we saw the tracks,
and the back of Main Street
twinkled lights above usnew,
disorienting, funlike the surprise of a train
of associations, coupling any old
boxcars in the mind. Its Indian summer:
frost last night and almost 60 now. Nothing
is falling out of the sky. A crow
alights, glossy, black, drawing its fingered
wings. Caw! it calls another overhead.
This poem was going to be about the crow,
or birds in general, about the mockingbird
that learns hundreds of sounds and songs
and how it chooses which song comes next.
A young woman on the path calls, Cah!
Stop it! several times. The grinning guy
behind her pokes her butt or neck
or trips her legs with a long twig. Cah!
(Carl, I guess) Cah! Knock it off!
What are you, fucking stupid?
Just so on childhood Halloweens
stupid boys would chalk my coat.
Shes in no real trouble that I can see,
except the common plight of a woman
with a stupid beauor maybe all of us,
about what comes next.