“The Place Where I Left You is Sandra Ann Winters’ first full poetry collection, following her chapbook Calving Under the Moon (Finishing Line, 2013). Winters is originally from North Carolina,” and her poems exhibit “an appreciation of the arts, a strong love of family, and an understanding of the craft of poetry….In her poems, Sandra Ann Winters works to clear away the busy world to get to the depth and core of one individual life. Her poems move toward a singular, up-close focus, as befits one who settles into a rural life in the midst of nature, and the poems gain intimacy for that.”
Sandra Ann Winters’ The Place Where I Left You is divided into three sections: “Family,” “Place,” and “Self.” The simplicity and directness of this thematic format suit the spirit of a book that moves from the small community of family, to a contemplation of home and neighborhood, and finally to the more introspective exploration of self. The opening poem, “Death of Alaska,” is a poignant contemplation written in the voice of a mother missing her son – “flinging himself, a young man now, into the universe” – and her dog, who has disappeared on the same day. In the format of a contemporary unrhymed sonnet, the poem turns in the final two lines, when the mother ends her restless calls for the son and the dog, admitting they will not return and feeling the reality of her loneliness. The poem prepares the reader for what is to follow: additional poems in which kin is absent in some way and poems of a relatively solitary life, where relationships are typically one to one, where the landscape and everything in it is worthy of attention.
The title of the book’s second poem, “Aw Go Away Now,” voices a fitting response to the sorrow of the book’s many departures, mostly by death. The words “Aw go away now and again” – brief and plain and poignant – are spoken by a mother dressing for burial her youngest son who has drowned at sea. In this section, family is the repeated theme. There are poems in which a child yearns for the attention and love of her mother, as well as poems that consider the relationship between a foster child and her foster mother – or multiple foster mothers. Two poems are elegies for the poet’s brother, who died at twenty-one. In “Missed,” the poet fondly remembers walking in the woods with her brother, who while hunting with his bow and arrow, draws his bowstring and deliberately misses, by half an inch, the buck he has sighted. Her admiration for him, for that compassionate gesture, needs no words of explanation except to say that at that moment both brother and sister are aware of what has just taken place: “we both know you have perfect aim.”
Section two, entitled “Place,” gives the reader a generous understanding of Winters’ love of all that is rural, particularly rural Ireland. The section begins with “Calving Under the Moon,” a narrative poem that opens and closes with a mention of classical music. A veterinarian goes to the farm of an old Irish farmer to help birth a calf, a procedure that is mostly mechanical but that also involves tempo – like the music of Mozart in the veterinarian’s ear. Winters provides a nice contrast between the practical and the sublime: latex gloves, a jack with rope, blood – all in the midst of music and moonlight.
She also casts a spell with the four poems that frame the rooms of a beloved house – parlour, kitchen, library, and bedroom. Each room has its story. In “The Parlour” a father is brought home to die, whereas in “The Library” the poet plans her own death: “My family / will bring cups of tea; I will slide away here, / where birds slip down the chimney, / land on the soapstone hearth.” The poem called “The Kitchen” enchants with its inclusion of both the artistic and the ordinary. An art lover, the poem’s speaker has painted her kitchen with the colors that Monet had in his, and she quotes from his late-night conversation with famous artist friends. Yet in contrast to such high art, at the end of the poem she is busy picking lice from a child’s head: “attached to the base of each hair shaft, tiny yellow nits.” The final poem of the section, “In the Neighborhood,” is a narrative that’s an odd fit, unlike Winters’ other poems, because of its irony. Whereas Winters typically depends on directness in a poem’s telling, in this case the poem’s strength comes from what is left unsaid in its first half, when the speaker wakes to the commotion of a medical emergency at a neighbor’s house – flashing lights, a fire truck, paramedics – while her husband sleeps through it all. She guesses that the neighbor has had a heart attack. What the reader learns later in the poem is that the speaker’s exhausted husband is a heart doctor, and this irony is not lost on Winters – nor on the reader, who feels the night’s eeriness because of it. Among sonnets and poems of longer stanzas, “In the Neighborhood” also stands alone as a poem of two-line stanzas, which, with their pairing of lines, have the regularity of a heartbeat.
The final section of The Place Where I Left You is an exploration of self, which begins with a poem about a master artist taking over, in a controlling way, a student’s work and moves from there to the idea of the self’s fragility. The considerations include suicide and madness, art and temperament: scenarios of being on the edge of sanity, and beyond. Women, real and unreal, who appear are Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo, and Mona Lisa. The poem “Caretakers of the Crazymakers” begins with a description of what it feels like to be a “crazymaker”: “You try to sit tight, but I keep slipping away / like a slick fish – moods too oily to make port. You / want to tune me to my main channel.”
For Winters, self also means going back to childhood – thus, poems with the intriguing titles of “I Grew Up in a Shell Service Station” and “How I Lost My Skirt While Reciting Hiawatha” (not my favorite poems of the collection but definitely ones with memorable titles).
By the time the reader arrives at the book’s end, the theme of absence and leaving has come full circle. In the closing poem, “Talking To Okra,” the son speaks to the mother: “I have come back to the place where / I left you.” Even he, as close kin, realizes the poet’s intensity of focus, the desire to bring the universe down to the singular: “Some would say billions, some millions, / but you saw only one star.”
There is nothing gimmicky or pyrotechnic about these poems. They are forthright and grounded in clarity, with enviable variety in both language and syntax. Winters’ love of the Irish landscape and culture contributes some lively and less-common diction – willies, gorse, and jigs, for example. Add to that the poet’s willingness to be vulnerable, as well as her fierce fixity – “You’re staring again, Mom, her son says in the final poem – and the result is a book that bears more than a single reading.
One of the pleasures of reading a poetry collection is to finish it and ask myself, How in the name of art did the poet do that, create a whole world of poems and keep me in it from the first to the last page? I never know, really, how it happens. But I do know that Sandra Ann Winters pulled me close into her world where a male swan feeds his mate “knotgrass, red goosefoot,” returning later to “peck her unfeathered skin between the eyes,” and I was there “when the only sound / is the vibrant throbbing of great white wings.”
Best seat in the house, the reader – near a window – turning the pages of the book.
But although there’s an effective sparseness in the use of language and emotion, the poet doesn’t shy away from letting her clear delight in the sounds of language come through: “he who cut me off like a sharp snip of scisssors / against the papery peony stems”. This interaction between the theme of human contact and word play appears again in one of Winters’ most beautiful poems, ‘Water Signs’, in which the poet feeds crab meat to a friend breastfeeding her baby. With the emphasis on the “tender pink” of crab meat, the woman’s “peach breast”, the baby’s “petal pink mouth”, a scene of the utmost gentleness is created, with a kind of harmony existing between the women and the crab they eat. Despite the primal barbarity in the cracking open of crab claws and feeding the meat to a woman nursing her newborn, the poet reminds us that the crabs were once babies themselves, their journey to “Oyashio, the ‘parent current’” almost lovingly evoked. Its this joyful gratitude towards a life feeding another life that subtly eases the reader towards an acceptance of this version of the circle of life, in which the poet finds herself “caught / somewhere between creature and human.” It’s masterfully executed.
Family relationships are a recurring theme in this collection. ‘Shampoo’ is a humorous little poem in which the poet searches for the shampoo in her son’s shower. A strong, likeable voice emerges: “Where does he keep / the damn shampoo?” Finally, after the narrator has given up searching, she spots it “one foot and two inches / above my line of vision” thus encapsulating, with a wry sentiment about physical difference, the changing nature of a mother-son relationship. The fluid nature of relationships is also a theme in ‘To an Ex-Husband on his Sixtieth Birthday’, an unsentimental look at the things which once constituted a marriage: games of chess, camping trips, the husband playing the piano while his wife slept. Although the marriage has since ended, still the husband once “ladled water” over his wife in the bathtub; still he “loved our newborn son in white”. There is no desire to diminish a set of experiences once they seem to have come to nothing; this writer recognises the value that the past holds.
Winters is also adept at summoning a sense of place, and in fact a whole section of the book is dedicated to place poems. In ‘The Mother Vine’ she lists the different names given to the state fruit of North Carolina: scuppernong, mother vine, suscadine, scuplin, suppydine, suppeydime, white grape, bullets, bullis, bull—each name as exotic in the mouth as one imagines the fruit might be. Winters’ connection with Ireland also comes across clearly in poems such as ‘Mute Swans’ and ‘Early E-mail’. ‘Knocknagullane, Ireland’ brushes a little too close to the Bord Fáilte Irish experience: “Ballads rise from pints of black Guinness. / Locals set dance to jigs, reels and hornpipes”. But there is a genuine emotion at the heart of this poem, expressed without resorting to convoluted metaphor: