calaboose. noun. A jail or prison; cell
Karen Herceg spent three decades working on her collection of poetry, Out from Calaboose. The poems reflect that; they feel slow, deliberate, not a single word more than what is necessary.
The individual poems are deftly woven together- this collection in five parts takes you on journey through the seasons, scattered snapshots of thoughts, literal and spiritual travels, and through the concrete highs and lows of Herceg’s life. “Part 1: In the Wake of Frogs,” covers what separates us: walls, continents, desires. Ownership in a relationship is introduced here and remains a driving force throughout her personal work in this collection.
Herceg shows the full range of her talent, at some points the prose stark and pointed, “I am a woman too, / have herded children, objects and desires.” And at others sinister yet lyrical- “Rather you strip me down / and yoke me stark / pare and parse the lace / the sugar that hides the taste / of me / honesty in your need / to own my love”
In part two we move through physical time while Herceg reveals her internal mechanics. Herceg has a talent for describing nature, and connecting her creativity to the physical environment. Summer holds her down- the one summer poem finds heat stagnant, oppressive. Fresh, frigid winds, breathe life into her observations. “I see the puzzle of a sky / between skeletal fingers / and its stark patches / bore into me / like a hopeless romance.”
In The Silence of Snow there is Peace, reflection, and stillness, in the heat of summer there is motionlessness. Heat brings us to concrete reality. Smog covered streets, the smell of blacktop, to the story of Toulon 1971 “In the white glare of an afternoon / I watched you stroll up the dirt road / while, straw hat in hand, I fanned the heavy air,”
Herceg’s thoughts never seem cliched, though the volume covers well-worn tropes: love, the environment, family. She takes tiny moments and magnifies them, spinning entire imagined worlds from small glances, such as in “Shadow Dance” (p. 27), when she describes a couple’s embrace: “you cover me / like a crucifix”
In “Part 3: A thin Season,” Herceg offers snapshots of the everyday and answers what it means to her, what she views as the truth. The ways we think of the world, and don’t think of it. People’s relationship to the world and each other. This is one of the more concrete sections and at times Herceg turns toward a political bent. “Corporate Menu” takes a swipe at the devastation to the planet caused by our industrial farming: “petroleum plastic packaged / for the convenience of our impatient lives.” In “A Thin Season,” Herceg’s elegy for “a young man beheaded for listening to Western pop tunes in his father’s grocery store,” is hauntingly beautiful. Her beautiful words are in harsh contrast to the gritty reality: “Isis goddess of love, the moon, / magic and fertility, / a healing sister of deities / daughter of earth and sky”
Like Part 3, “Part 4: Loving Hands” offers a section of more concretely worded poems- pointedly weighting down the reader into the heart of the collection. In “Maternal Elegy” she is literally bound to her mother. “cutting the cord / where you dragged me /through the mire / of your own sins / a maternal bloodbath.”
Her words, as always, are beautiful, cold, and describe unrelenting life. “the inscription of their names, / the chiseled dates / making impressions on my flesh.”
Though accepting of what is, rarely at peace with it “I awake to the immeasurable sadness
of loss, / not for whatever was / but what was not, / the dream of possibilities and lost connections, / the incurable pain of memories / that never existed.”
And again, we are never free from other people- especially those who made us. “spines straight as rulers / with impressions from loving hands, / my sister and I learned early / about a queen who must be obeyed,” These loving hands leave a permanent mark that holds true across her life. Herceg sums it up best herself as, “the unendurable obligation / of love,”
Even in the final part of the book, where Herceg quotes Carl Sagan “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love,” love is a necessity and a burden. Her works are scattered again and still melancholy. Because even here at the end she doesn’t let go of what could have been. “If I could thrust my hands outward / ripping through embryonic clay / I would sculpt the lives / we did not have”
In Out From Calaboose Herceg explores every prison you could encounter- being bogged down in the material world, bound to another person, your past, the reality of what is while miring yourself in thoughts of what could have been. Herceg’s imagination stretches the mundane, escapes the confines of the physical and beautifully describes ugliness at every turn.
Out from Calaboose is available from Nirala Press.