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Book Review: Stains by Lori A. May

Lori May's Stains takes a light approach to the experience of growing up, without skirting past the intensity or pain. It's not a comprehensive work — instead the poetry, which goes back some decades in the poet's life, moves through a series of epiphanies that form a ladder to adulthood. The book is set up in seven parts, each named after a particularly staining substance. It's a grouping you might find on box of laundry detergent, moving from the innocence of grass through coffee, ink, salt, smoke, blood and sweat. The sections follow accordingly, with three to five brief poems in each. Grass is about childhood: from the uncomfortable confinement of a good girl: "patent leather/shines on/for decades/still good this year," to the "bleeding puppies" of a cyclone in "1979".

Beyond the initial sections of childhood, are the rough teen years of "Coffee," with its mustang kisses and delicate, youthful first love, or the more serious collegiate imagery of "Ink." "Ink," as the name suggests, charts the development of a writer, with its blank pages and imagined plots, while the next section, "Salt," moves across the love and loss of a woman. "Smoke" is the beginning of transition, where the child like immediacy of the early poems broadens into a more global, second person perspective. The poems in this section are brief and Zen-like, with a single Koan statement or question aimed at creating a sharp image:

"the lack
of expectation

does not
guarantee
protection from

disappointment (58)"

The poems in the final two sections, "Blood" and "Sweat," are more intense and ambitious. "Dear," with its double entendre, has a hunting theme and is very powerful with its repetition of the words "shoot it." Ostensibly, this is a poem about a boy's coming of age — his first kill — but also about the loss of innocence, about death and responsibility, and about the brutality of guns and supremacy:

"shoot it
and show the world
you are guilt free

because you can
is the reasons
no room for uncertainty. (65)"

In the last section, the imagery is more ambitious still, and the poems resonate with love and loss against a busy world that continues to move even when personal meaning is halted: "grandfather clock ticks/scratches underneath fingertips/distance slowing/and air swallows time" (81). Stains is a delicate picture of the stains of experience that shape and define us. It reminds the reader of his or her own stains — the transitory and life changing moments of reflection, experience, or enlightenment that accompany the motion from childhood to adult.

About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.