After Voices by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
Reviewed by MICHAEL RAVENSCROFT
Burning River Press, 2009
There is a moment halfway through After Voices when the description of a stockyard off Highway 5 becomes a quiet reflection of the vast portrait of suburban American life Jane Rosenberg LaForge sets out to depict:
The images in After Voices are at once ghostly and welcoming; as the deaf dance to echoes of bells and drums, LaForge writes of the sustaining power of lemons, meditates on the sight of freshly poured asphalt, and sees a peach in the eyes of a passenger on a long drive in northern California. It is with such images that LaForge crafts a dense vision of growing up American, and helps make After Voices an honest and insightful collection of poetry.
Woven into After Voices is the deeply personal account of LaForge’s father’s loss of speech. In the introductory essay, LaForge explains that her father’s deafness was part of his persona for as long as she could remember; his silencing is a far more recent development attributed to throat cancer. 'After Voices', the opening poem from which the collection takes its title, talks of a “[P]ewter and quicksilver/ gray, a fog laid down” and by this fog, her father’s hearing “was cut off in/ mid-sentence, at mid-century.” It is this curious severing of communication with the outside world that brings to bear LaForge’s search for meaning in the stockyard off Highway 5. Just as the deaf can dance to echoes of bells, trinkets and drums, LaForge searches for meaning in the absence of words and sounds.
Though the poems in After Voices are primarily a meditation on the complex feelings associated with constructing a poetic autobiography, the images LaForge conjures from her childhood are captured like butterflies in a net and released just as quickly, highlighting the transience of such moments of recollection. Yet the delicate aesthetic of earlier poems like 'After Voices' and 'Beyond the Sound Barrier' is punctuated by frequent attempts at immutability: Lines like “No generation can know/ itself if its greatness is too soon/ detected” and “they’ve stilled the march/ of progress by building boardwalks” indicate LaForge’s desire to make bolder social and cultural assertions. Though these are occasionally successful, there are times when LaForge moves away from the “upstate New York mud” to talk about “the on-going urban warfare/ of AIDS versus gunshots.” LaForge makes a few such bids for social relevance that are ultimately unnecessary; her poetry succeeds in depicting the quieter moments of the American experience, and it is through those moments one finds the significance underlying the fractured memories that come to define us. As the reader approaches the final poem in the collection, entitled simply 'Onions', one senses that After Voices is just such an exercise in peeling away the myriad layers of images and memories that make us who and what we are to discover some greater truth about ourselves.
MICHAEL RAVENSCROFT was born in Canada, grew up in Michigan, and is currently writing, working and living in Washington DC.
The stockyard smells heavy, burdened
by the years, the cars, the children
inside who insist on mooing to the cows,
a song they are born bored of already.
Even the deaf can dance to echoes
of bells, trinkets, and drums.