Todd Boss’s verse is spare, taut, and permeated with love.

Yellowrocket: Poems By Todd Boss W.W. Norton 96 pp., $23.95

Poetry books often seem guilty of false advertising because the rave reviews on the dust jacket don’t match the writing inside. Then a collection like Yellowrocket comes along and readers are reminded just how good poetry can be.

Todd Boss’s work is a lot like the plant after which it is named: Both thrive in bare, disturbed soil and produce bright blooms even after repeated mowings. Yet while one “stained the palms/ and reeked when/ you pulled it,” the other leaves an invisible mark that makes the reader feel vibrant and alive.

Boss achieves that feat by balancing raw beauty with traditionally poetic topics: growing up on a farm, marriage, and fatherhood.

The “soil” he tills – the human heart – could easily produce saccharin, trite verse. Instead, Boss’s writing aches with subtle music, insight, and clearsighted compassion.

Or, as he says, “call it love,/ but if you call it love,/ call it a love that/ persisted.”

That love permeates every poem, as does Boss’s attention to detail. He sees what others often miss, as in “Wood Burning,” where he describes his hard-working father

opening the cold
and stubborn iron heart of the house,
turning the fact of
newsprint and tinder
into a kind of prayer
for our warming –
his first tender act
of the morning.

Any subject – a sleeping child, trees, mannequins in a dress shop – can spark imagery so apt and surprising that the words seem to shimmer. Take, for example, these lines from “The Day is Gray and the Lake”:

shifts, mercurial,
like modeling clay,

the million thumbs
of wind at work upon it,

the artist unable to come
to a single conclusion.

Just what shape should
this cold lake take

this morning?

Those descriptions, like others in the book, are stunning, memorable, because they work on the eye, the ear, and the spine. You can almost feel the hair on your neck rising as you read.

Poem after poem elicits that reaction, until Boss, like the wind, changes direction, allowing rhyme or wit to take precedence.

“Yellowrocket” is full of wonderful moments that defy the reader’s expectations. But they, like the weed’s flowers, are not the source of its strength.

This book endures reading after reading because it articulates what others cannot say for themselves.

In “How it Must Have Been for him,” Boss describes a marriage in three succinct lines:

Their life was a bicker.

In fifty hard years on the farm together
pleasure never pulled the plow.

The language here is spare and taut, just as it is in the next few lines, when the speaker wonders how the man felt to find his wife “unawake,” with “her slippers on the floor/ the thermostat down/ eggs unbroken in their icebox divots.”

The empathy behind the lines keeps the scene from becoming morbid. It also demonstrates why poetry that arises from understanding has more power and resonance than verse that simply wallows in suffering.

By the end of the poem, the reader feels a strong connection to the husband and the loss he can’t quite voice.

You want – and need – to hear that when he phones for help, he says, with quiet dignity, “Not her name, not/ A pronoun merely/But my wife....”

“Yellowrocket” has a few minor flaws, places where the rhymes or descriptions go too far. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a stellar effort, especially since it’s also Boss’s debut.
If you only buy only one book of poetry this year, make it “Yellowrocket.”

Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.

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