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"The Last Island"

A poet asks: How do you love without losing yourself?

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Most debut books of poetry go unnoticed critically, unless the author wins a major prize or creates a memorable stir. The Last Island by Mimi White deserves attention because of what it demonstrates about perseverance.

White waited 30 years before she finally saw a full-length collection of her work in print. Like many poets (including newly appointed US poet laureate Kay Ryan), White had hoped for early acceptance but achieved only more modest successes. White had poems in some of the country’s best journals, saw a chapbook of her work selected for a prize by poet Robert Creeley, and served as poet laureate of Portsmouth, N.H.

She almost broke the first-book barrier several times, but as the years passed, White also reconsidered her expectations about what poetry could give her. That evolution mirrors the central theme in “The Last Island”: how spouses change and adapt over the course of a long marriage.

The collection opens with an imaginative poem about a woman watching a house burn. The flames are a metaphor for love, which can create a purifying heat or leave nothing but ashes behind. In this poem, the ashes – fears, regrets – seem to win out.

“This is the loss of language,” White writes in the last stanza. “She cannot name what was hers: a cotton dress, a mirror, a comb.”

As the book progresses, White explores questions that have flickered and sometimes flared over time: How do couples balance the past and the present, when the former seems much more vivid and intense? How do you face the losses time can bring? How do you not lose yourself?

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