American Sampler

by Jane Duran

reviewed by Sarah Kafatou

Jane Duran lives and works in London, and her roots are in Spain, Cuba, Chile, Algeria, and the United States. Breathe Now, Breathe, her first book, was awarded the 1995 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Those that followed—Silences from the Spanish Civil War, Coastal, Graceline, all published by Enitharmon—explore an inner landscape enriched by her diverse homelands. American Sampler, set in New England, is the most recent and most profound of her explorations so far.

A sampler, turned over, seems to map the accidents of a life, or generations of lives, or of a work: “broken off threads tied into existing threads, / beginnings, all smoothed, taut and fastened, / but betraying frailty and repair.” Its embroidered texture is a set of lessons studied: in patience, renunciation, wonder, and perseverance: “stitch by stitch, burden by burden, / . . . the greens staying strong in the thread.”

A New England winter is almost monochrome, even as grasses push through the thaw. Its lights are manifold. Outdoors, ice-harvesters make their way through the woods “as far as the glare,” while in the evening at home the light is warm:

Tonight there would be a lamp lit

in each room, my grandmother’s hair
caught up in a bun, as she moved
from room to room, pulling the light with her.

Darkness also is not simple, but absorbs light and is layered: “The shade behind a red barn / drinks the sun to the dregs. / All of daylight is in it.” Yet a deeper, more final darkness haunts the interstices: “at night the sense of snow / melting here and there, along our roof,/ among the woodpiles, wherever there is black.”

The visible, physical world is alive in these poems, and their verbal rhythms, while unobtrusive, are sure; yet the complex images they evoke live in the mind much more than in the senses. They have been made out of absence, silence, the loss of a loved past which they mean to recover and reconstitute. The world they bring to us is permeated by other, vanished worlds:

The experiences of others
drift through me. The same light
everywhere I look, the same invisibles.

These are poems to be read slowly and many times more than once.

Published on June 18, 2015