Barbara Kingsolver is best known for her novels, including “The Bean Trees” and “The Poisonwood Bible,” and her essay collections, such as “Small Wonder” and “High Tide in Tucson.” She’s not as well known for her poetry, though she should be. “How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons)” collects her best poems from the past few years. It’s a tonic for these pandemic times, reminding us of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as a “momentary stay against confusion.” Kingsolver’s poems are like that, though their clarity is less a matter of sudden revelation than the slowly ripening insight of age. The title poem, with its ironic parenthetical promise that we can learn to soar after “ten thousand easy lessons,” sounds a winking dissent from all those how-to bestsellers that offer quick mastery of life’s essentials in a handful of effortless steps.
That note of rebuttal runs through more than a dozen other “how-to” poems in the book, including “How to Have a Child,” “How to Get a Divorce,” and “How to Be Married.” Perhaps the most memorable of these wry tutorials is “How to Lose That Stubborn Weight,” in which the narrator, seasoned by a certain number of birthdays, suggests putting all those catalogs and magazines – and their grueling expectations of body image – on the bathroom scale instead.
“Leave them there for sixteen weeks,” we’re told. “See how the weight melts away / from the craven core.”
As such poems make clear, Kingsolver’s subversive humor, which occasionally sharpens her fiction and essays, informs her poetry, too. Her quirky sensibility often recalls Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate whose puckish eye for the comically absurd is an abiding reminder that poetry needn’t always be a somber exercise.
That kind of playfulness is especially vivid in “How to Do Absolutely Nothing,” a poem shaped like a narrowing triangle. The lines slowly dwindle to a single word at the end – suggesting, in the spirit of Henry Thoreau, that the key to doing less is having less.
Here’s how it starts:
Rent a house near the beach, or a cabin
but: Do not take your walking shoes.
Don’t take any clothes you’d wear
anyplace anyone would see you.
Don’t take your rechargeables.
Take Scrabble if you have to,
but not a dictionary and no
pencils for keeping score.
In “How to Knit A Sweater (a Realist’s Prayer),” the narrator prays as she knits, hinting that real spirituality grows from deeds as well as thoughts. Moving hands are a motif of sorts for this collection – and, indeed, for the broader body of Kingsolver’s work. In these poems, as in her novels and essays, she argues for a tangible daily connection with the natural world as the most reliable antidote to despair.
In “How to Shear a Sheep,” Kingsolver plants her tongue firmly in cheek and suggests talking sheep into shedding their precious coats. “Ask them to come, / lay down their wool / for love,” she writes. “That should work. / It doesn’t.”
The poem underlines a simple reality – namely, that a meaningful engagement with animals, plants, and the life of the earth can’t be a mere matter of sentiment. Instead, it requires us to get our hands dirty.
That work, though sometimes difficult, has rewards of its own, Kingsolver suggests in “Will.” It’s about her 90-year-old mother-in-law’s willingness to help with canning tomatoes, the shared labor often a time of shared stories, too.
“Pellegrinaggio,” another set of poems in the book, chronicles the travels of Kingsolver’s family in Italy as they take her mother-in-law to her ancestral home. In one of those poems, “On the Train to Sicily,” Kingsolver almost audibly sighs on the page as she describes a sullen fellow passenger: “a girl. Deep blue hair / drawn low across her brow like a wartime / blackout curtain.”
The girl brightens, though, when she answers her cell phone and finds her mother on the other end.
Family figures into “How to Fly” as a complicated but ultimately redemptive presence. “This is How They Come Back to Us,” another series of poems in the collection, considers departed loved ones and their enduring legacy. In one of the poems, “My Great-Grandmother’s Plate,” Kingsolver marvels that a piece of dinnerware once offered as a spanking-new wedding present is now a venerated heirloom, time working its wonders on Kingsolver, too. She, not her great-grandmother, is now the matriarch charged with passing on the wisdom of experience.
These poems – sometimes funny, often tender, and always deeply expressed – are a worthy answer to that calling.