"The Last Island"
A poet asks: How do you love without losing yourself?
Most debut books of poetry go unnoticed critically, unless the author wins a major prize or creates a memorable stir. The Last Island by Mimi White deserves attention because of what it demonstrates about perseverance.
White waited 30 years before she finally saw a full-length collection of her work in print. Like many poets (including newly appointed US poet laureate Kay Ryan), White had hoped for early acceptance but achieved only more modest successes. White had poems in some of the country’s best journals, saw a chapbook of her work selected for a prize by poet Robert Creeley, and served as poet laureate of Portsmouth, N.H.
She almost broke the first-book barrier several times, but as the years passed, White also reconsidered her expectations about what poetry could give her. That evolution mirrors the central theme in “The Last Island”: how spouses change and adapt over the course of a long marriage.
The collection opens with an imaginative poem about a woman watching a house burn. The flames are a metaphor for love, which can create a purifying heat or leave nothing but ashes behind. In this poem, the ashes – fears, regrets – seem to win out.
“This is the loss of language,” White writes in the last stanza. “She cannot name what was hers: a cotton dress, a mirror, a comb.”
As the book progresses, White explores questions that have flickered and sometimes flared over time: How do couples balance the past and the present, when the former seems much more vivid and intense? How do you face the losses time can bring? How do you not lose yourself?
As White says in the poem “Nightfall, Rodin Gardens”: “I could not forget the grass, the smallest fragment/ of our history.”
There’s a fascinating mix of private queries and larger concerns in these pages. Almost every poem – whether the subject is tree branches or walking with a grown daughter – teaches something about the complex nature of love while also remaining tight and finely chiseled, as if the poet has lit a match to any extraneous words.
In “Field Notes”:
I watched a bird
Flitting upside down
On a gray sky.
She was small as a thumb,
Striped with rust
And speckled rose.
…But what stills my mind
Is what I know:
A pocket of feathers,
An assemblage of song,
And when there is no love
Left to extinguish,
The first poem in the book’s third section contains a crucial epiphany: “I was wrong about so many things.” That statement reflects more wisdom than regret, and from then on, the speaker moves toward greater peace and acceptance about how 40 years of marriage have shaped and defined her.
In the closing poem, one of the strongest, the speaker discovers her own “wings” as she helps release a bird into an orchard. The poet, like the creature, has batted “her body/ against the cardboard sides.”
She has struggled at times, tested her limits, and rediscovered her own strength. Then, like the bird, she becomes calm enough so that “word by word/ she sets herself free.”
“The Last Island” – a metaphorical place – provides a respite for both the speaker and readers to reassess and rejuvenate. Don’t expect easy platitudes, though, or poems that can be read in a cursory manner. White’s work can be challenging, edgy, and subtle.
The reward, for those who will dive in, is a satisfying journey and a powerful reminder that marriage – and certain vocations – can be difficult at times but ultimately are worth the effort and commitment.
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.