03 January 2011

Stepping Through Moons by Toni L. Wilkes

by Toni Wilkes
Finishing Line Press, 2009
27 pages, $14

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk

Stepping Through Moons starts with a bang and a bucket of nails.

Bucket of Nails

He comes back, a bucket of nails
in one hand, a pear weeping
brown bruises in the other.
Stems of quince tear his face
when he squeezes the redwood gate
from its latch.  The tin bucket
slaps his thigh, nails jangle.  His
parents’ house, a waste of bottles
and shame glares back at him.
Near the porch, black bees dart
from the riven trunk of
a maple.  Remnants of a tree swing
sag from its branches.  Laying the
fruit on the porch railing, he prods
slats of steps in place as the pear
rocks to the blows of his hammer.

Here’s the book in a nutshell, or, rather, a tin pail.  Strong visuals, suffering and stoicism offered in a language of charged restraint, and always something that can be heard—nails jangling, the hammer blows—in the clusterings of words and consonants.  
Toni Wilkes has organized her chapbook into sections that echo the title phrase Stepping Through Moons: Walking Through Myths, Threading Shadows, Scattering Clouds, plus a little transitional Diptych of two poems that respond to paintings.  The ekphrastic poems in the book underscore the landscape poems, in which she artfully reveals nature’s beauty. 
But most compelling to me is the first section, Walking Through Myths, where we follow that boy with the bucket of nails through his life with challenging parents—a sometimes distant, sometimes shouting father, and an artist mother whose sketchbooks (and “independence”) he finds “stashed away in cupboards and drawers.” 
Part of my attraction to this section is that the female poet takes us deeply into the life of a male character, presumably one she knows well.  She knows his personal history, or perhaps his personal mythology.  We see him old enough to repair a porch.  We see him young, a “triangle-faced boy” in one of his mother’s colored chalk portraits.  We see him playing with a sister.  We see him losing this sister: “They took his sister away at dawn, / her face the pearl-gray of shadowed water.”  We see him grown past his griefs, disposing of the contents of his parents’ house.  This is a grown-up boy who commands my attention and compassion as a reader, and here Wilkes is both poet and masterful portrait artist. 
Stepping Through Moons is one of the signature saddle-stapled chapbooks of Finishing Line Press, with colored endpapers and ribbons tied around the spine.  I know the poet has some choice in colors and book design but that the press also uses available scrap paper stock from its printer, so I count myself lucky to have a copy of the book with shimmery moon-colored endpapers and a blue ribbon that matches some of the blue lettering on the rear cover and the blue illustration on the front cover.  It’s a lovely book with a bound-in erratum slip crediting the cover art—a color etching called Moon Rising—to Kathan Brown, a gift of the artist to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.  

Wilkes is a California poet, and I was pleased to learn two words from her poems!  “Nandinas” and “neoprened.”  Nandina is an evergreen plant known as the heavenly bamboo, but not really a bamboo at all.  Considered a pest in Florida, it is tolerated in California, and is a good place for towhees to hide and find seeds in winter, as in “A Study in Gray,” one of those artful landscape poems. And neoprene is a DuPont plastic and the stuff of wetsuits, which makes perfect sense in “Ghost Surfer,” the last poem in Stepping Through Moons, where a surfer whose “shadow, like an indigo / stain” is there and not there, and then “evaporates / in the wing-beats / of swifter currents.”