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Book Review: The Shadow of a Dog I Can’t Forget by Mary Kennedy Eastham

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Mary Kennedy Eastham’s book, The Shadow of a Dog I Can’t Forget, contains poetry ranging from the elegiac to the erotic. The verbal economy and stunning imagery leaves you breathless while you travel among the denizens of a very strange, very beautiful Southern California landscape. Think Six Feet Under episodes set to poetic meter. The poems confront and explore issues like nature, identity, class, and desire.

In one memorable poem, “Find the Men Who Killed the Horses,” an incident about two Marines who killed 34 wild Mustangs builds in rage towards an unexpected ending:

    I will tell them this is war
    they must strip naked
    while I use a mop to cover their bodies in Mustang blood.

She continues:

    …and I will whisper to the bobcats
    "Go on, find them, find the men who killed the horses"…

Eastham’s lines work their magic, infusing the scene with images, dreadful and pagan. Nature, destroyed by the rampaging Marines and their “high-powered rifles,” seeks to right the balance as bobcats are set on them. In this regard, Mother Nature is not a pacifist. The poem reminded me of “The Bear” by Galway Kinnell.

Another poem, “Stripping for Blind Men,” ends with visceral images,

    I start to crawl
    closer, then push away
    closer, then push away
    toward restless fingers snapping
    me, this mind stripper, who lets hang from her panties
    a velvet pouch full of eyes…

Up to that point, I found the poem mildly amusing. To strip for blind men, an activity full of whimsy and playfulness shifts suddenly to an image of horror and power, ferocious and surreal.

The book is studded with poems like these. Marilyn Monroe, loners, and other strange figures fill the book with wonder and danger. I was moved.

The Shadow also includes the short story “Delicato” and an "Ask the Author" book discussion in which Eastham tells about her inspirations and the context of her work. "Delicato" is the story of Johanna Dane losing her brother, Mica, during a flood of the Eldorado River. During Johanna's search, she meets people like Parsifal, mystic mayor of Dane's Crossing, and Sylvia Tobacco. Sylvia and Corenna Tobacco are Johanna's 90-year old neighbors. Everyone in the town is a lovable eccentric. The disaster forces these quirky individuals to band together. It is a wonderful story, the settings and characters powerfully evoked. Eastham is a master of both poetry and prose, showing the reader there is the thinnest veil separating the genres.

I look forward to reading more work by Mary Kennedy Eastham. Her poetry places a humane, dangerous, and strange perspective on the lives we live.

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