TOOLS & ORNAMENTS, Tracy Rice Weber. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 56 pages, $18.00 paperback, http://www.saintjulianpress.com
It is rare in the 21st century to find poems that are as emblematic of WCW’s maxim, “No ideas but in things” as are Tracy Rice Weber’s in her recently released collection, Tools & Ornaments (Saint Julian Press, 2023). Even the title foreshadows the strong, concrete images to follow: “level,” “coping saw,” claw hammer,” “…a chain / link fence, the slender mimosa…,” “crayon-blue mountains,” “loblollies,” a “Radio Flyer.” These “things” are only a sample of those that populate the collection’s first three poems. But Rice Weber’s poems are not mere lists. As in Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” her title, “tools and ornaments” provides a figure to a narrative that is infused with ideas, emotions, and abstractions that are not only grounded in the things of this world, but proceed from them, rather than simply appearing alongside. In addition, the structure of this collection is a one heroic crown of sonnets (15 interlocking sonnets) that has been divided up to open each section. The subject of this sequence is of a father with mental illness—bipolar disorder, most likely. His daughter celebrates his bright days and mourns his dark ones. She also refers to his troubled childhood and what may have been the trigger for his mental illness. A cento alludes to his suicide:
Between the green tip and the root
Any point of a circle is its start:
Trying to find its way
by a current I could not name or change.
In the framed black and white photograph
Divine shapes, scents, their sorrowful voices and silences.
Memory was the room I entered down a long corridor
and the cold bleak lack to come.
These lines cobbled together from other poets’ work also create an ars poetica for Rice Weber. She demonstrates in this collection that between what triggers—to borrow a term from Richard Hugo (Rice Weber’s “root”)—a poem, and what the poem ends up being about (“green tip”)—any place can be its beginning. And there is no formula for how a poem finds itself (“trying to find its way / by a current I could not name or change”) except in the things (“framed black and white photograph[s]) that spring from “memory”)—a memory that includes what Sasha Pimentel calls “the absences…the unspeakable spaces we pry open inside language.” Not only does this cento allude to a father’s suicide, it strengthens themes of presence, absence, and perseverance.
The opening series of poems in both sections I and III lay out what is at stake both with figure and background in section I. After introducing her father as “a buyer in retail, circling / home when he could to truer callings—handyman, dreamer / if impossible projects—…,” the daughter relays a story of organization, grounded on a pegboard of tools, and the impression the negative space made on her when the tools were in use:
…he traced tools
then painted their silhouettes—inventory on pegboard
where they hung. A practical matter, to see what was missing
by the shadows they left. Memorizing those shapes,
I learned the value of negative space. The work done bit
by bit there, the comfort—puzzling out repairs, favors
for neighbors, gifts for friends. What you might need—
a solid table, a sturdy mantel. He taught me how a man may be
remembered by what his hands made. He also taught me
sometimes what’s missing serves mercy’s greater cause.
These themes of presence and absence or negative space, are ones that are conveyed not only with the re-appearance of the final line of one sonnet in the first line of the next in the crown of sonnets, but in other ways, as in the disappearance of text in the caesuras of poems like “Leveled.”
Once, you picked him up at school for another
you saw him on the playground
his mainstream class doing laps to burn off third-grade
enthusiasm before the slog back to cruelty of seat work.
That time you saw him running
among neurotypical peers blonde hair whipping
from his high brow in late afternoon sun.
That time on the blacktop he was more
beautiful than all the others— body lithe, unfettered as wind.
In “Not a Lion,” Rice Weber utilizes Haibun to bear witness to the onset of a child’s neurological disorder. (“He said mama and / dada and then he didn’t. / The seizures began” is the closing Haiku). Filling in spaces between formal poems are collections of nonce forms and lyrical-narrative free verse poems that develop the theme of being and non-being with gorgeous language and narrative arcs are quite unusual for these days. In “Balancing Act,” the poet weds lyricism with a narrative about a mother scraping together enough to buy groceries in front of her eighteen-year-old son, resulting in a seamless, memorable work of art in a unique, tercet form:
Autism doesn’t keep
my eighteen-year-old son,
my shopping wingman,
from understanding how
these kinds of awkward
episodes unfold. We retreat
from Checkout Line 4,
abandon our cart of
bagged groceries to find
a bunker in the privacy
of the family van
where I am grateful
for the miracle of
and dial 1-800 numbers
on the back of every
charge card I carry
to find one
not currently maxed.
Each first line of Rice Weber’s tercets “unfold” into insight after insight into the emotions felt of not having enough money to cover a cart full of groceries, with diction that remains in the exterior world of concrete, sensate experience, rather than in the interior world of abstract emotions. And each of the remaining two lines “abandon” the first in the same way the narrator abandons her cart, but doesn’t abandon her persistence in finding a way to get what she needs, if not what she wants:
the Lord doesn’t see the need
to provide a box
a Boston Butt, or a bag of Cheetos.
I consider the adventure
whenever I pull our cart up
to a check out,
my tank needling E.
Tools & Ornaments is filled with poems of trauma and responses to it. Section III, A Falling Weight, a Shifting, opens with the final line to the crown of sonnets—the form that has held the collection together and now will speak directly of final abandonments: suicide (“Traveling, parked car running in his garage, hose and exhaust pipe— / his fixing hands—they did what they could,” final lines of 7th sonnet in the series), and then give way to other poems with dire consequences—disease (“After Chemo”), death (“Another Passage”), and the pawning of personal belongings to buy groceries again (“Pawn”). However, this collection never gives up hope and never fails to find the right forms (tools) to demonstrate that play is always possible, amidst the difficult work that must be done—not as ornament, but as necessity in order to retain one’s humanity. The penultimate poem of the collection, “Etymology,” a short pantoum, demonstrates this in both form and content.
After twenty-six years, he still flirts with me—
sharing honeyed Words of the Day.
He sends only those choice syllables
he is certain I’ll want to possess.
Sharing honeyed words of the day
like halidom, a holy place
he is certain I’ll want to possess,
to hold in my mouth like a deep kiss.
Like a halidom, this holy place,
he sends only those choice syllables
to hold in my mouth like a deep kiss.
After twenty-six years, he still flirts with me.
Not only this poem, but this entire collection gives the reader a halidom, a holy place with “…choice syllables…to hold in our mouth[s] like a deep kiss.”
Tracy Rice Weber’s Tools & Ornaments has conveyed to the reader the critical nature of negative space—in all the poems, from the absent father to the shapes and shadows left by those who’ve passed on, leaving their “things” to be reckoned with, epitomized in the epigraph the author chose from Ruth Stone: “and what is note there / is always more than there.
Longtime educator Tracy Rice Weber teaches in Virginia at The Muse Writing Center in Norfolk and as an adjunct at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. A graduate of the Old Dominion University MFA Program, her work can be found in River Review, The Bangalore Review, on Poets.org as a recipient of the Academy of American Poets College Poetry Prize, and forthcoming in the 2024 winter / spring issue of CALYX. In 2021, her chapbook, All That Keeps Me was published by Finishing Line Press. Tools & Ornaments, her first full-length collection of poems, was just released by Saint Julian Press.