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IN Review

Edited by liz gonzález

Taking Your Own True Name

by Keven Bellows
Lake Champlain Press, LTD, 2004

Keven Bellows is a marketing communications executive at Premiere Radio Networks. She has been studying and seriously writing poetry for 20 years. 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
swim away.

(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 universal present.

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 sentimentality.

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).

Review submission guidelines: Please send a proposal of your review of a poetry book or chapbook to liz@speechlessthemagazine.org. Write "Proposal for In Review" in the subject line so I don't think it's spam. - liz

Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach