In Terri Kirby Erickson’s second book of poems, Telling Tales of Dusk, she handles a variety of subjects with grace. From the “coal dust fine and black as pulverized midnight” (“County Fair,” p. 3) to the “car [that] disappeared into a patch of fog” (“The Belle of Bourbon Street,” p. 100), the poems are about ordinary subjects — people and memories from her childhood and adult life.
Never frivolous or weak, Erickson’s poems exude a feminine air: Only a woman could write these poems, and there is always the sense of richness that comes from choosing the best details rather than spilling out everything. In some instances, Erickson solidifies what we’ve always known but never put into words. She speaks of children’s cruelty — of being friends with the wrong people — in a way that is painfully familiar.
It was death to be seen
anywhere near her…
worse than wearing
a nightgown to school
or throwing up in class.
(“Fannie,” P. 41)
What woman cannot recall the child — whose name was not always Fannie — whose actions taught us a lesson, when we were mature enough to learn it? Erickson has exposed the snob in us all.
Erickson, who has lived most of her life in North Carolina, writes about her family, including her beloved brother Tommy, who died in 1980. Sibling rivalry enters the picture. In her poem “Sunbath,” she was supposed to stay inside and not look out the window, while her mother took her baby brother into the sun to heal a rash. But she peeks, because “I wasn’t supposed to, which is a powerful incentive.” And doing so, she hears her mother loving the baby like he was the loveliest ever. But Erickson tells us (from a child’s point of view) that he wasn’t the “most beautiful baby/ God ever made.” No, “That would have been me.” (“Sun Bath,” p. 25) Whoa. The honesty hits like Biblical parable.
But Erickson also recalls, with a tenderness akin to that of a mother, the boy with whom she shared her childhood — the one she never thought she’d lose so soon.
I live on and on,
breaking in ways
we never imagined.”
(“Stairway To Heaven,” p. 53)
Erickson write about her mother, her father, and her grandparents. Her grandmother read scripture to her grandfather, who could not read, but preached.
…—the words warmed
by her breath and scattered into his
brain like dandelion seeds—where
once a week, they grew into a sermon.
(“Papa Never Learned To Read,” p. 42)
She writes of her own daughter, too. “One time I looked away,” the poem begins. then “faster than two beats/ of hummingbird’s wings,” the child vanished, was found, and hugged “so tight, [she] came out/ the other side of me grown.” (“Time,” p. 36) Knowing that time is fleeting is perhaps why Erickson can make a fluid transition so easily from her own childhood to that of her daughter. She washes her baby’s hair “in the milk-scented air” with her “new-mother face, glowing.” (“Washing My Baby’s Hair Over the Kitchen Sink,” p. 71) She has cherished these moments and recalled them with detailed accuracy and made poetry in so doing.
Erickson’s language is always accessible. She writes a poem about a tomato sandwich, and what’s more, she makes her reader agree to the importance of “soggy white bread / [that] sticks to your teeth, the tangy taste of salt, … pellets of fresh / ground pepper burn[ing] the back of your throat” (“Tomato Sandwich,” p, 24)
There are also poems about nature in this volume. Erickson writes of a weed that “dandies up/ a ditch,” growing in “common places.” (“Queen Anne’s Lace,” p. 9) And in another poem, she sees “two crows,” and her “thoughts fly/…like birds through rain-drenched/ clouds.” (“Two Crows,” p.71)
But lest one think Erickson has lead a sheltered, pampered life, she also writes of hookers.
…She was skinny as the grip-end
of a long-handled shovel,
price with a man young enough to be her son…
but plenty old enough to know that cash money
can’t cover the cost of every transaction.
The poems in Telling Tales of Dusk are divided into five sections, But it is clear that all the poems in this volume have the cohesiveness necessary to make it a book. Erickson has written poems that seem so commonplace that we believe them as soon as we read them by choosing the best details for her often-familiar images. The tone is wholesome and honest but never preachy or holier-than-thou. Terri Kirby Erickson has achieved what many poets aim for: Erickson has made the personal seem universal.