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"Like That: New and Selected Poems by Sybil Pittman Estess"
Sally Ridgway, The Texas Review

Buy it for the audacity of the cover, its resplendent peacock bursting from the page. It eyes us, with all its eyes daring, as each poem here observes the world—through lenses that are earthy, certain, untethered.

Or buy it for the swagger of the title—Like That—plainspeak juxtaposed with the peacock’s brilliant slap of color. The title’s colloquial phrase is the language of the people whose stories she loves to tell. Read the book for what it promises—and provides—the glory and the grounded. Estess’ new poems and poems selected from four previous books welcome us easily to her singular style–intelligent and tender, bawdy and holy.

If you’re not convinced, flip through to “My Love Affair with Diane Sawyer,” “In My Alice Blue Gown” or “Massage on Christmas Eve.” Whether waxing with wit over Diane Sawyer, witnessing the pool of blood from a murdered black man or massaging her nearly naked dying mother, Estess has created a book of life—of love and lament, unexpurgated.

But what’s sacrosanct is not the poem; it is the story. The poem is its vehicle. We know this from the tone—inviting and deceptively simple. We enter its reverie. It’s an art that evolves outwardly from structure within a range of poetic forms and internally from close attention to syntax, sound and, especially, diction. In the opening line of “Blowing Sand May Exist,” a poem both philosophical and funny, Estess writes that “ . . . grit got in her eye.” Words such as “grit” ground us in familiarity as do a “hunk” of bread in a love poem and “butts or breasts or bush up” in a poem about sunbathing in Esalen (“Edge”).

Ever preferring the commonplace, brand names and names of places abound. In “The Cemetery on the Hill Behind the College in Brenham” she’s wearing Reeboks. Her people nibble M & Ms, brush with Close Up. Whether she is airing laundry in the Holy Land, reprimanding Bush at a Super Bowl in Houston, or meeting Jesus in a hotel, she seeks the ordinary. Even Biblical Esther in “Esther Decides” “…went to see her shrink. She paid the bill / herself and knew her animus.” And in “Festina Lente” Sarah’s God “… is like a mule working slow plow / Through dirt, while she holds tight to the old, / Cracked, oak handle.” In poems such as this and others that are like prayers, Estess tells us to pay attention. These many-layered works provoke thought and evoke gratitude.

One way or another, the poems are about people—sometimes Biblical, but also mythological or fictional. In “Withering Script,” one of a series of four imaginative poems drawn from Wuthering Heights, she appropriates Heathcliff and Catherine to West Gray Street in Houston. In “Every Sorrow Can be Borne,” based on Isaac Dinesen’s work, she accomplishes the impossible—a short poem that honors not one, but five friends whose sons died young: “Absence is that steeped, deep sadness stories / keep. Ties, like scars, don’t heal. Yet are not lost.” The repetition of hard e sounds stitches these piercing sentiments together.

The book’s first section, of new poems, begins with an elegy to her brother-in-law, a re-enactment of the hard funeral day. It is followed by “Up,” a poem about the new life of her granddaughter—obsessed with the word “up.” In this charming poem “up” is repeated twelve times and is never cloying. Instead, the juxtaposition of death and young life sets the tone for poems that follow.

Here are poems of place, spirituality and racial discrimination amid stories of love, loss and family. In a set of three poems about guns, two are memories of her father and step-father. In “Hunt” it’s “… exercise / we are getting, my step / father and I.” Estess deftly uses syntactical inversion and line break to foreshadow: “No questioning / the male house authority. / We eat what he takes.” In “Gun” her husband saves her from an attempted suicide.

Love figures highly as a theme. In the whimsical “The Happiness With Which it Ends” a globe-trotting couple finally achieve happiness on the Gulf of Mexico. “Enchantment” is the love story of a couple of old sailors. In “Song of Magdalene” she promises to love in old age like Mary, bathing feet. Such spirituality spills easily from love in the title poem “Like That” in which family love, during a colorful Easter celebration, evokes a “kaleidoscope” Christ: “That’s Christ, all right, returning / to us: unexpectedly, with serendipity, / wonder, and brilliant struts.”

On the other hand in “Talons of the Holy Ghost,” an elegy to a friend, Estess suggests the importance of belief in a Holy Ghost with “talons” that are painful. Too, there is questioning and longing in “Where There’s Smoke,” a poem for poet Jack Bedell whose book she reads as she heals from hospitalization:

The outdoor fireplace is full of fire, the day
blackening. Then the orange coals. But the time
it took! Like my body is taking to heal, like some
love-deals. Soon it fails.

Here are examples of skillful consonance, with the repeated f”s, plus “love-deals”—one of her succinct constructions.

Poems of place travel toward wholeness, beginning with “The Beach,” a flashback to  childhood and forward to the realization that she still waits for her father. In Houston she swelters in global warming with forty-one s’s to sizzle (“Mid-October”).  Unable to escape the heat, even in Colorado, she observes a forest fire and in “Returning: High Place on Lake,” writes philosophically about aging:

Time with its happenstances has seared us too—like forest
crisps—with its refining blaze . . .
At seventy, like these huge Osprey;
here, we dive deep to feed. We have mostly soul left.

And in a rousing finale to the new work, she is in Amherst outside of “Emily’s House” where she sees a rat running on an upstairs wire: “He is ugly and fat, / as if he has eaten the eros Emily / keeps within white.” In one sentence she moves deftly from the mundane to the sublime.

As a child of Mississippi in the ‘50’s her work reflects a heightened sensitivity to racial discrimination, oppression and segregation. In “Houston: How We Pass Through” she sees it in areas where races mix during the day for work but not at night in neighborhoods. Still, there is hope, as in “Magnolia Bayou: The House” in which “Kids of various colors are playing / on the block ….” Note her choice of the informal “kids” versus “children.”

And finally, after travelling through Texas, in the book’s epilogue poem there is both admonition and hope in “What the Citizens of Texas Need:”

What we are starved for is compassion, suffering with,
to guide us through …. Yearning
for something we wish to keep that’s
endless, worthy,
maybe true.

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