Scarlet Apples and Cream

by K. Brittany Fedorev Vanderkleed

Review by Chris Lott

Capsule summary: Though generally overwhelmed by their "message"
and in need of a good editor, this volume has some sparkling and strong poems.
Ironically, considering the strongly feminine point of view, the strengths lie most
particularly in poems directed to the poet's son and father.
Bottom line: If you can find, buy it. A book worth purchasing by a new voice.

When it comes to poetry I am generally not a fan of didacticism. Scarlet Apples and Cream is a book with an overt message (in fact, many of them) that is not often clouded or otherwise obscured by metaphor or fresh use of the language. What comes through as the driving force behind most of the poems in this volume is not just the strength of the feminine, but also the force of the feminist. Vanderkleed's book suffers from too much devotion to the latter without apparently realizing that this doesn't necessarily do much to strengthen the former. The problem lies not in being a feminist or anything as crude as that (lest I sound like an ogre), nor in any fault with the lessons she proposes to teach, but in the fact that many of these poems give the poetry reader very little that is new.

To illustrate just what I mean, take some lines from the first few poems of the book. In "Goddess Within", written to "Daughter, Child of the Earth," Vanderkleed writes:

"They will tell you of the vileness
Of your feminine cycle--
The symbol of your femininity, fertility and essence.
They will persuade you to offer your gifts
For nothing but shame."

A few poems later in "A Quarter to Midnight" the speaker calls her husband at work after she has worked all night at home and at dinner only to be greeted with "cold, unfeeling words." The speaker goes on to say:

"I'm tempted to forget it all
Tonight and forever...
Yet here I am, a quarter to midnight,
Dressed in my best lingerie,
Cooking your dinner, waiting for your arrival,
And planning my own departure."

While I sympathize with the viewpoint, I start to get frustrated with "message" poems like this which are not using the language in a fresh way or doing anything else to startle me--there should be an organic formal reason that what she is saying is taking the shape of a poem rather than an essay…

It is not that I disagree with what Vanderkleed is saying, only that I find myself underwhelmed with the manner in which she is saying it. Part of this has to do with my own belief in description over didacticism, but not all. There are many poems that I admire from writers as different as Blake and cummings, or Frost and Kinnell which have a distinct message inherent in them-- but these poets balance (or overbalance) this tendency with fresh and imaginative uses of language and new descriptions of familiar objects. Vanderkleed's weakest moments come when she gets so caught up in the message she is conveying that she neglects to incorporate anything dynamic into the language she uses to say it.

Before anyone stops reading this review and finds themselves wondering how I formulated the capsule review at the beginning, let me hasten to add that this book has some very good poems as well. Ironically, it is in the poems about or to some male figures that are the strongest in the book. In a few of the poems to her son and particularly to her father, Vanderkleed lets the language move and the result is simply wonderful. In two sequential poems she writes of her father. First as a strong masculine figure confined to a hospital bed, helpless for the first time:

"He saw himself as weak;
Yet, his strength was only more apparent
To those who loved him.
For the first time,
He showed the world another part of himself--
The strength within his tears."

followed immediately by the simple, yet moving tribute to her father's influence on her life, "The Ring and His Language"

In fact, these two poems form the core of the strongest section of the book, with poems written to/about her son, her father, and the horrifying experience of rape. Any reader who reaches this section will feel compelled to read on-- and they will be amply rewarded for those efforts. The poems here are as strong as any you are likely to find anywhere and are themselves worth the price of the book.

Despite some initial weaknesses, and the need for a good editor to catch such simple problems as using the contaction "who's" when she means "whose," I am confident that Vanderkleed will continue to improve and I look forward to seeing more work from her, particularly if she takes her own closing statement in the final poem to heart and treats her readers as she speaks of treating her husband, child and father:

"Let me love you with words.
Submit willingly to them, opening yourself
To their intimate dance."

and lets her own words dance at least as much as she does her ideas.

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