Book Review: ‘Woman in Red Anorak’ by Marc Harshman

Marc Harshman. Woman in Red Anorak. Amherst, Mass. and Seattle, Wa.: Lynx House Press/University of Washington Press, 2018. 70 pages. Sofcover. $17.95.

In Woman in Red Anorak, Marc Harshman’s third full-length poetry collection, the poems span over disparate times and places, from a post-apocalyptic America to the Allied invasion of France to the afterlife in an old woman’s backyard. While these jumps can be disconcerting, they serve to illuminate the universality of human experience. He explores the value of words in a world full of scarcity, loneliness, and war.

The title poem caps off the first part of the book which deals with wars both in the flesh and mind. A man, home from war and suffering from PTSD, dissociates for hours in a forest until his mother calls out for him. In his vision, there is “a woman in a red anorak standing with him,/ standing in the middle of a sea just before a storm.” The identity of the woman remains unexplained.

In the first poem, the post-apocalyptic “Parts,” the speaker describes relationships

between those with broken hearts

and the handsome toymakers

who could still remember how to fix them.

And would have fixed them, 

if only they could’ve found the parts.

The characters populating this collection try to fix what cannot be mended, such as the mother of fallen World War II soldiers in “Restless” who “once could mend anything” but now searches for “another pattern,/that one we all reach for/ wishing to bring back the dead from dying.” Hope is scarce here, even when aided by love.

The mother, this time a grandmother, knits in the background of prose poem “Keep Calm.” Set in the near future, her son wonders how to tell his family war is coming. “How does he tell them about the change that has come, arrived here this very moment? What words will carry the weight of this heavy earth, the million depths, the little, strangled cries? What words carry on?” Harshman continues to explore the meaning of words in times of crisis throughout the book.

One of those words gets its own poem: “Trust.” The speaker starts simply by telling the reader, “You know this word.” The poem goes on to enumerate the ways trust can be used and abused in some of the most beautiful, sharp language in the book. The ending lines, “Still, it is patient,/ and waits for you,/ when all the other words are gone,” lend a little hope to a book full of despair.

The third section features a breakup between long-term partners. In “Such Little Light,” a woman is alone in the forest thinking about what to do with her partner’s fury. Words, and the lack of them, play an integral role to her solution. She hears him call out to her, and “Feels good, very good, to hear him, and hear herself not answering.” Her silence speaks more than her words could. She is tender with her fury, although she decides to let it, and him, go. “The echoes of a thousand words of comfort she lifts in her hands and gently blows them into the cotton mist lifting into the hollow. It’s a lot to give after all these years. It’s enough now with which to leave.” By giving up the words of comfort shrouding his fury, she frees herself. As the summer night falls around her, she looks to the fireflies for guidance. The fireflies are “in love with nothing more particular than warmth and darkness. To think such little light could lead a path.” “Such Little Light” is true to its name, providing a little light to the reader, who at this late point in the book needs it.

The woman needs and uses words to let her partner know about her decision to leave in “She Didn’t Have Much to Say.” She texts him, her words indirect yet still a “swift dismissal/ of the old ways and the distances between.” The man responds with characteristic anger:

There might have been some other words,

but there were none would burn any brighter 

than these turning blue

under his fists.

Words, then, are a vehicle for his fury and her freedom.

In the final poem, “The Company of Heaven,” the reader returns to the grandmother’s home. In the most bizarre moment of the book, a jet lands in her backyard, and she welcomes its polite occupants into her home. The stewardess calls her name and the grandmother realizes she is in the afterlife. She is nonplussed and says to herself there is “no use trying to explain it.” Words cannot explain the miraculous, the divine. She muses, “a hundred years from now, who knows how the story would be told.” By not trying to shape the narrative, she decides to give herself up to that which is greater than her. “She’s glad for the company, though, and if they plan to travel on, she means to join them.”

So, what words do carry on? Harshman wrote a book about the words that are unspeakable, the words that carry our lives. Words that fear, that love, that trust. Harshman’s words search through difficult times and places to find that one word underlying human life: hope.

Emily Masters is a senior English major at Berea College where she works as a teaching assistant for Silas House and as a student editor for Appalachian Heritage and Apollon e-journal. She is from Monteagle, Tennessee, where she lives on a farm with her family. Her work has been published in The Pikeville Review.

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