Edited by liz gonzález
Taking Your Own True Name
by Keven Bellows
Lake Champlain Press, LTD, 2004
Bellows is a marketing communications executive at Premiere Radio
Networks. She has been studying and seriously writing poetry for 20
Taking Your Own True Name
represents her first published work.
Reviewed by Alice Romano
Drenched in sweat
I wake to the blank slate
of the night before;
flashes of memory
(from "Ocean Voyage")
In Taking Your Own True Name, Keven Bellows lets us know early on that
she was once a lost young woman, a panicked blackout drunk "pinned by
dread weight / body knowing what the mind will not." When Bellows
recalls her "mind thrashing through snatches of the night before," she
sets elegant vowels in slurred consonants, crafting fearful tension from
the juxtaposition of sounds. Readers believe, with the now clear-headed
adult poet, that "The dread is fresh." Bellows' language is informed,
precise, lean, so we trust the author to tell the emotional truth, to
produce "the shudder of recognition."
Bellows shifts time adroitly, sometimes with a simple sensory prompt:
"the soft damp riding on my skin / suddenly feels cold, and / forty
years evaporate in the fragrant night." She travels up and down complex
layers of released memory. A remembered glimpse of "a popsicle red
Oldsmobile" convertible and a child "stranded in the big back seat…his
faraway face so resigned / to being utterly forgotten" take the poet on
a ride back to her childhood, forward to her own son, and on to a
The readers are taken "along for this ride, / invisible witnesses," exposed to sins that parents visit upon their children.
Water imagery invokes the author's adored father, and so do allusions to
magic. He had "liquid blue eyes" and a "tidal thirst" for alcohol and
love "that would sweep [the family] from the shores of home." He is "The
Alchemist" who offers the "amber-magic" of a cocktail cherry to his
young daughter. Many years after his death, when the poet recalls her
father "standing on the platform December mornings / swirled in steam,
as the train beat the dawn / into the station, bringing me home from
school," it is as if she has conjured a genie. Her father, a man of
"open arms and dark desires," was "The River" that "just kept soaking"
the poet's "roots, / transforming sand and stone." The poet and her
embittered mother "lived on opposite banks of my father's love."
In "Losing It," the poet examines her mother's cruel anger and its
effect on her with a stinging figure of speech: mother is a knife
thrower, her words "weapons.”
Unsheathed, my mother's voice whirred…
Anger set her edgewise to me…
When she died, she left me her tools
rusty blades still sharp enough
to separate me from my own children.
The author's "frozen tone" "pins" her own children across a "widening
divide." Thus, the distancing device of metaphor allows the poet to
articulate the sharp pain she endured and her own guilt, without
Bellows has a painterly eye for light with which she illuminates her
subjects. In earlier sections where the poems are about pain that has
not yet been resolved, light is often pitiless. "The California sky
pours white hot sun / on all the pretty girls / …trapped in a dream of
starting over." The drunken college girl is captured in "a moment of
sunsplashed panic." Cruel words "sting" the poet into "isolation / the
color of glaciers." The poet as painter poses mother and daughter in
dramatic frameworks—the knife thrower's arena or the "front parlor" of
"Quality Time," in which situational irony comes from the title. The
schoolgirl sits near her mother in the "ailing light of afternoon,"
praying to be seen, "shrouded in the bleached box of light / slanting
through the window." The adult poet still fears "the white tomb of
afternoon… / cling[s] to book or pen to keep from / falling away to
small, against the wall of light."
Words save the poet, we see later, when she visits the same room—this
time in her mother's voice. The imagined mother watches an older Bellows
write when Bellows cannot speak. The imagined mother hears, even smells,
the crackle of rage and grief in the poems and prays for her daughter.
The poet is not put off by what she learns about herself in the writing.
"If you don't know the words, you can't find your way…Darkness is no
excuse. Nor silence. / The journey is not optional."
Donald Hall said, “Conflict makes energy and resolves our suffering into
ambivalent, living tissue." Dreadful energy is in these poems: the
poet's father, dark center of the poet’s "turbulent love," awash in his
tidal thirst, looks to his child for consolation no child can give. The
grace of these poems is that they "flush" the poet's "heart from cover,"
and the poet survives. The child listens "for the shuffle of slippers
dancing / to the music of ice in the glass," waits in "fear of the dark"
for her father, "haunted hunter." This is what the body knew and the
mind would not.
The mature poet is witty in employing her poetic tools. She
apostrophizes God in "Spiritual Awakening:"
so I was surprised to spot You on television
(so pedestrian, really),
looking for all the world
like Mercedes McCambridge,
fuzzy curls awry.
Your voice a sticky rasp…
...laying out simple facts for drunks.
Liquid sensory imagery returns, redeeming. In "River Jordan," water
becomes "a primal embrace." The reader experiences a sense-memory of
drinking as the author
sink[s] into a hot tub rather than a chilled bottle
Professional armor melts in the rising steam.
I am Cleopatra slippery with amber unguents;
immortal, my curves pink as Bonnard's wife
shimmering in dusky light.
Poems in the later sections of the book move the author from
reconciliation with herself and her past to reconciliation with her
children. "Slipping the shadows of winter afternoons" in "Letter to
Michael," she takes a redemptive car ride with her son, "winding west on
Sunset." She is deft in her use of rhythm and repetition, "chasing the
dog chasing the gulls / into the surf churning him over and over," so
with the poet and her child, "we shed our slivers of sorrow," finding
love and healing.
Could a lover of words make so thorough a recovery without having poetry
to, in Hall’s words, "retrieve and release"? It is important to master
the poet's tools rather than merely to write. Here is Hall again: "The
pleasure we feel, reading a poem, is our assurance of its integrity."
Keven Bellows fills her first book with well-made, true poems. It feels
good to read them, again and again. They keep their honest edge.
Alice Romano, editor and translator, has
transformed Italian screenwriters' sceneggiature into American movie
scripts for twenty years. Since 2002 she has participated in Westwood
Presbyterian Church’s poetry workshop under Keven Bellows' leadership.
With Bellows, she has co-edited anthologies of poems from the
workshop. Romano serves on the board of Independent Writers of
Southern California (IWOSC).
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In Review" in the subject line so I don't think it's spam. - liz