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"Like That: New and Selected Poems by Sybil Pittman Estess"
Harrison Kohler, Concho River Review
March 17, 2014
Atlanta, GA

Sybil Estess’ first book of poetry, Seeing the Desert Green, was published in 1987.  That book was followed by Blue, Candled in January Sun (2005), Labyrinth (2007), and Maneuvers (2011).

Like That contains twenty-five new poems in the first section but has also included her selections from her four previous books of poetry.  All of the poems are relatively short, and in a sense are accessible to those of us who are neither poets nor have made an extensive study of poetry.  Yet brevity does not imply superficiality.

Her first poem – “Parting” (p. 3) – concerns the funeral of her brother-in-law. She closes the poem with the ironical observation that

...His hair was
parted for us and everyone in the sweltering church
to notice not the way he wore it but on the wrong side.
There are some lighter moments. In “My Love Affair with Diane
Sawyer” (pp. 70-72) Ms. Estess writes that Diane Sawyer is
…gorgeous…sexy…completely equal to her man…so totally cool…
To me Sawyer has everything a female should have
in the 21st century: fame, money, looks and brains
power, guts, animus, all. I don’t know
her score on wholeness or integration.
But as for TV she’s A-1 for me.

And in “Edge” (p. 6), the promise of Esalen is

And if you ditch your clothes
lie on the decks buck naked…
whether you are dirty,
divorced, unemployed, disabled, uneducated,
have spent your life uptight, have or
have not smoked, pot, you will be whole.

But throughout the poetry the themes of the poet’s memory of and relationship to her father, who died young, and her mother, who lived into old age, seem ever present.  In her first selection from Seeing the Desert Green, entitled “Massage on Christmas Eve” (p. 117-19) – Ms. Estess writes of giving a massage to her aging mother:

...she dares to disrobe
and stand before me nearly naked…
Are we two Marys anointing one of our bodies for death?
…So my mother did not own
her own story.  She wouldn’t put her name
on her pain…
“I Have No Story/I Have No Tale” (p. 59-60).
In “The Beach” (p. 9)
I was one child in Florida more than
fifty years ago before.  I was a girl, age nine
when Daddy first took us.  He soon died.  I am
always wayfaring to water.

she tells her dead dad all this as they talk.)
- “Esther Decides” (p. 84)

In addition to “Parting” there are other poems dedicated to friends who have died or lost loved ones – “Talons of the Holy Ghost” (p. 13), “Pretending You Were Joseph” (p. 81), and “Every Sorrow Can Be Borne” (p. 111).  “Blue Field” (p. 101), which originally appeared in Blue, Candled in January Sun in 2005, is now dedicated to a friend who died shortly before the publication of Like That.

As her short biography states, Ms. Estess is now a grandmother and much of her poetry concerns the issues of those in the latter half of our lives – deaths of parents and friends, marriage, relationships with children, and the religious struggle to find meaning in life.  There is no cynicism in Ms. Estess’ poetry.  There is pain and loss but also joy and hope.

What we strive for is compassion, suffering with,
to guide us through solstices, darkness
through our fifties, beyond…Yearning
for something we wish to keep that’s
endless, worthy,
maybe true.

- “What the Citizens of Texas Need” (pp. 145-46)

Like That is well worth reading. 

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