“Radost, my red”

By Jeri Theriault

Moon Pie Press, Westbrook, 2016

86 pages, paperback, $15.

The odd phrase that’s the title of Jeri Theriault’s recent collection of poems is a slightly recast fragment from the last two lines (“Radost — my red, / red coat”) of a poem in the book’s third section, whose epigraph is also those two lines. Something about a red coat.

We piece together from the poem, “White Morning with Crows / Prague, 2007,” that the word “radost” is Czech for “joy” or “pleasure,” and also the name of a “club / in Zizkov, laughter / and music and / dancing.”

These fragmentary associations about joy follow a distinctly unjoyful rumination that begins with a bleak walk home (in the red coat) on a stormy night — “harshness / all but forgiven.” The next morning, a crow “in the half-dead oak / across the street” gives a “coarse call” that summons more crows, “angry letters scrawled / on sky.” The speaker of the poem, who is observing them from a chilly window seat, with a cup of coffee, writes down the words “Carrion,” “caution” and “Caustic,” and apparently makes a little drawing whose lines resemble a “Slurry / of ink and blood.”

Dark, uneasy mood to these verses.

Then the speaker looks up “crow” in a bilingual dictionary and finds the phrase “Radostny Krik — / Joyful Cry.” This prompts her to make a sudden turn out of the Eastern European bleakness into the remembered joy of Zizkov and of the beloved red coat. Odd rhetoric, because the dark feel of the walk home and the “slurry” isn’t really dispersed by “Radost — my red, / red coat” at the end.

So this is a collection of poetry reflecting layers and layers of mixed feelings. The color red, the coat, along with other cherished articles of clothing (“red gloves”), allusions to Mediterranean and other mythology (Ariadne, Galatea, Barbie, Mrs. Robinson), and snapshot recollections from a Franco-American childhood in Maine (joy and bitterness, among other emotions) and from extended sojourns in Eastern Europe (bleakness and aesthetic excitement, among others) come to us in bits and pieces throughout “Radost, my red.”

The imagery tends to concentrate into lists of isolated words that capture the poet’s attention. In “White Morning with Crows” it’s “Carrion,” “caution,” “Caustic,” “crow” and “radost,” for example. In “Search Engine”: “I gather words / like pericardium / and ventricle, / and google heart / … google an old lover,” which leads to a mix of images and feelings from the past.

Smack in the middle

of a marriage I didn’t know

I could leave, in a house I hated,

I wrote the Latin names

for flowers — Tanacetum vulgare,

Daucus carote — a list

that went on and on

like the pages of URLs I’d get

if I googled help me, please.

I can’t breathe.

In these poems, inner experiences build up out of implicit and explicit fragments. Life is experienced here as perplexing going.

To me, the most internally coherent poem in the collection is “Finding Kafka in Cafe Kaaba,” in which the speaker of the poem is sitting in a cafe unobtrusively making sketches of strangers. She’s reminded of other coffee shops and of a complicated love affair of her own. She glimpses (fragmentary) a poster showing the wry face of Franz Kafka, who lived in Prague and was possibly the 20th century’s strangest, most psychologically disturbing writer. She sketches his face, and suddenly all the fragments of life and love in the cafe come into uncharacteristic clarity:

… Cafe Kaaba is full

of Kafkas and the moment stretches

and stills like the scene in a film

when the protagonist’s pain or joy

or exquisite awareness

stuns even the cameraperson

and the room’s slo-mo blur

becomes a metaphor

for epiphany.

“Radost, my red” is a book of poems expressing the feelings involved in the lifelong search for moments like this.

Jeri Theriault lives in South Portland. She is the author of the chapbooks “Catholic” and “Corn Dance,” and has contributed writings to “French Connections: An Anthology of Poetry by Franco-Americans,” Beloit Poetry Journal, and many others. “Radost, my red” is available from Moon Pie Press of Westbrook, which deserves, by the way, a nod of appreciation for its prolific publishing of Maine poets in the 21st century.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].