Review: River House by Sally Keith (Milkweed Editions, 2015)

Review by C. Derick Varn

“I had been skeptical, but it was beautiful,” says Sally Keith, which could apply to this book, which builds on small references, seemingly banal observations, and an emotionally muted tone. The River House is an eulogy that does not have the heights of emotion. At first Keith’s poems seem like writing a daybook in verse, but soon you feel the observations and lack sneak up on you. The banal observations become a shield against loss, and then an acceptance of the loss.

These sixty-three poems seem simple–there isn’t a lot of obvious linguistic gymnastics and allusion are direct and rarely figurative. The poet’s banalities and references can become rhythmic and sometimes reads like a fugue. There are displacements in time hidden in otherwise direct language, and there is clear mourning there as well. Starting with the description of the River House, a house on stilts, protected from the waters, the extended metaphor holds the book together. There is a distance from the topic that is slight but the stilts are definitely there.

Circularity, repetition, and returning play key roles in book: Routines, how those routines break, and then returning to them changed take up an large focus on the book. The house versus the river, and river being change and time. These metaphors are ancient and could be cliched, but Keith doesn’t let them become so. Familiarity and habit channel our grief but doesn’t unto it. Even repetition of form in the book– similar line lengths, stanza lengths, etc.–and slight ways the form breaks build on this theme.

The surface of the poems serving almost as litotes for the adjustment and emotional drain the loss of Keith’s mother pushed her into. I was skeptical, but in the end, it was beautiful and sad.

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