Later, Knives & Trees by Maureen Alsop Negative Capability Press, 2014 Reviewed by Janine Harrison
The cover art aroused curiosity. The feel of the cover and paper within was smooth, soft to the touch. And the introductory blurbs were poetic—making me want to not only read Maureen Alsop’s collection but also to explore the reviewers’ work. Before ever reading the first poem, this book made me want to linger, to take the scenic route through words. After finishing, I knew that if I were to reread Later, Knives & Trees ten additional times that I would gain insight in each instance.
Later, Knives & Trees is the latest of several full-length poetry collections by Alsop, which include Mantic and Apparition Wren. She also has an impressive journal publication history, and the poems in this particular assemblage have been distributed individually in such journals as Citron Review, Journal of Compressed Arts, and Watershed Review.
Later targets the intellectual reader, and I found myself yearning for my time as a graduate student, so that I could devote weeks to literary analysis, instead of days to review. In “Raison D’Ȇtre,” meaning “reason to be” or “reason for living,” a manifesto on why Alsop writes poetry, she pens, “Most direct? My/indirectness. Beautiful in the slow hurt witnessed down to the figure of my smaller/slowness” (lns. 2-3), lines that exemplify her poetic voice.
Although first-person singular and plural points of view are prevalent throughout the collection, Alsop employs considerable use of direct address with a fluid “you.” Readers are asked to suspend disbelief in the world on the page as the poet slowly doles information, with clarity more fully attained about halfway through the work.
Meditation on life and death, with an emphasis on death—on disconnect—is central to the text. Alsop addresses “otherness” in myriad forms, such as through the divided self, the divide caused by death, and the divide between “I” and “you.” “Vetiver,” for instance, begins: “Your soul lost contact with your other soul” (ln. 1). In “A Willow Tree and Often, a River,” the narrator states, “Soon there is distance in love. Soon, you, who have always been proud/pass through me” (lns. 4-5). Later, in “Gnosis,” the persona maintains: “I let my voice/pull you toward sun dividing waters (lns. 4-5).
Alsop’s work is not all about disconnect, though. There is love. And there is love for the idea of life. Life and death in her adept hands are rendered as both sorrow and splendor. Symbolism further enriches the work with references such as to origins, snow/ice, ash trees, and birds. Her form proves as varied as her symbolism.
In “Raison D’Ȇtre, Alsop concludes, about why she writes:
A Eucharist, the color-blind ring of ghosts, they plead sometimes (ln 25)
Maureen Alsop’s ruminations and language are so discerning and beautiful that Later, Knives & Trees could be considered a sacred space. If there is any pleading, it is not from apparitions mandating that the poet get the words right, but of readers, longing for more lines to save us from pursuits artificial and numbing.