Poetry Sunday: “The Way Back,” by Francine Sterle

Commentary by Susan Cohen, Guest Columnist

Francine Sterle’s “The Way Back” enchanted me from the first time I read it. First, her lush lyricism. Then, the poem’s payoff, an ending that is emotional without being the least bit sentimental. What draws me back again and again, though, is the way she controls breath on the page.

One common definition of poetry might be: precise language that reaches for a truth about human experience. But I’m struck here by the uncommon way Sterle uses controlled space as well as words—reminiscent of Charles Olson’s 1950 ideas about the page as a “field of composition” and his friend Robert Duncan’s “composition by field.” Even before I received Sterle’s author note describing her deliberate pacing in the two sections of “The Way Back,” I admired how she commands both our eyes and our breathing, and so our entire attention.

The effect is like slow-walking a labyrinth, the central image of Sterle’s award-winning fourth book: What Thread? Throughout the book, as in this final poem, Sterle avoids naming the specific loss around which her collection revolves, a decision that allows us to enter with our own grieving and grievances. Similarly, the way she opens up this poem feels like an invitation to participate.

We all have our tastes. (Thank you, Rebecca Foust, for lending me your column to express mine this week.)  I admit I sometimes find irregular lines more challenging than welcoming, especially when I suspect a poet abandoned the traditional left margin only to make a poem look more postmodern and experimental. But Sterle is not scattershot, and never random. Her approach in “The Way Back” is almost painterly, and also organic to the human experience she’s describing.

The poem literally pulls us in with: “A syrupy rope of honeysuckle,” one of the longest lines without a pause. I love the placement of “syrupy” so that it modifies rope. A honeysuckle vine might ooze nectar, of course, but the strange image of a rope that could dissolve into sticky liquid as you attempt to grab it conjures up both temptation and the tentative nature of emerging from grief. It’s followed, like a lone brushstroke, by the word “hangs,” which seems applied to the page as much as written on it—a visual representation of meaning.

“Desire,” too, dangles on its own line and tempts us to pluck it. We are invited to dwell and consider desire in its multiple aspects. Sexual passion may be evoked by “indecently” and “naked” in nearby lines, but some much more encompassing desire seems to be at stake here, a life force that goes dull after loss.

Slowly, we’re presented fragmented images, “ragged scraps of clouds / a leaf-streaked street / the sky knitted with stars” as if the speaker is noticing them in bits over time, as “the moon officiates” this gradual awakening.

We don’t need to know that “inexplicabilis / inextricabilis (Latin for “difficult to enter” and “difficult to leave”) is an allusion to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically his tale of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. They’re recognizable roots of the English words inexplicable and inextricable. Poems often converse with their predecessors and work at additional levels by way of allusion, and this one echoes the tale in which Theseus slays the half man/half bull, finding his way out of the maze after Ariadne provides a ball of thread. Grief can feel labyrinthine, can’t it, keeping us circling round and round with no clue how to climb out? Even without recognizing the myth, we recognize its emotional state: “a riddle/traversed in the dark.”

The second section of the poem names and expands on this paralysis: “the circular pattern / after the grim, private ritual of death / the compass broken / the needle static.” In this section, though, we’re told such feelings are passing. The poem picks up speed and we’re shown some sky. Though poets often use birds as images for the dead, the bird is grief itself here, a thief who also makes renewal possible as it flies off.

The poem moves quickly now, no longer stuck in place. If “bull’s horns” takes you out into a field to see the crescent moon rising in the shape of horns, as the phrase did on my first read, I think that’s fine. The natural world seems to be pulling the speaker out of the depths of the world of the dying. But, of course, it is also one more allusion to the Minotaur.

Throughout, I admire Sterle’s economy, the way she tells us just enough. Nowhere do I admire it more than in the final lines: “when another door opened / how willingly I walked through it.” These capture an almost-reluctant seizing of light and life after long darkness. In “how willingly,” Sterle deftly captures the guilt and shame we can feel that we don’t mourn forever, that we find ourselves experiencing pleasure again almost against our will. Just two words, and the ending becomes both exaltation and lament, expressing a complicated emotional truth.

In fact, the body of this poem is a mere 159 words. Yet Sterle leads us through it so deliberatively that it feels like an extended meditation, each metaphor an opportunity for contemplation. That is why I keep circling back to it.


Guest Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson-Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered here at Red Dragonfly Press, at Small Press Distribution or at Amazon. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. www.susancohen-writer.com



POETRY EVENT NOTE: In 2015 I was honored to be the Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH, the farmhouse where Frost spend many of his most productive writing years. The Frost Place is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year with a weekend July 21-23 of events free and open to the public. Friday Night, Charles Simic and Nikky Finney will read in the Henry Holt Barn, followed by cake and champagne. Saturday afternoon TFP will host a wine and cheese reception and a reading of the [email protected] and Gregory Pardlo Scholars, Diana Delgado, Gerardo Pacheco Matus, William Palomo, Charif Shanahan, and Javier Zamora. Saturday Night Gordon Clapp will star in performance of This Verse Business, a play based on Frost’s work. On Sunday, the public is invited to attend and read a favorite Frost poem at an all-day Read-A-Thon. For more information, visit http://frostplace.org/anniversary-events-list/

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  • Stephen Granzyk July 30, 2017 at 12:39 am

    I so appreciate both Francine’s explanatory note and Ms. Cohen’s analysis. I will return to What Thread? and appreciate it more fully because of this posting. Thank you!

  • Marianne Sippel July 19, 2017 at 12:11 am

    Absolutely beautiful. I’ve been writing poetry for 50 years, this is exquisite writing. Thank you, Francine. OMG remarkable.

  • Janne Aubrey July 17, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    Love the structure of this poem! I also love the photograph and have noticed most of the images on this site come without any acknowledgement of the creator of the image. As a photographer, I am missing this information. I’m guessing you obtain the images via a stock service? Generally love the images selected as well, so someone is doing a great job making the choices. They enhance the writing. Hope you can find your way to giving credit to the maker of the images soon!