Lush and lyrical, anchored and soaring, Catherine Staples’s debut poetry collection, The Rattling Window, which won Ashland Poetry Press’s Robert McGovern Publication Prize, moves readers deftly between worlds: the living and the dead, earthly life and the afterlife, dreams and wakefulness, the past and present, internal and external, as well as the more terrestrial geographies of ocean and field.
As the title portends, rattled windows (by wind, time, rain and snow) feature prominently in the collection as do gates and doors. The collection is a threshold itself by which readers pass through the many lives it encounters.
In the collection’s first poem, “Fear of Heights,” Staples carries readers through the places she intends to explore. It spins between past and present like a weathervane:
A widows walk will go to your head - like the sight of a former boyfriend pulling up in a two-toned Alfa...
Then continues to invoke the elements:
wind from the sea makes you lightheaded, inclined to break like a floe far to the north, present self sheared loose from your youth.
How easily sheets fly off the wicker - chairs, tables, dining set, a summer writing desk. Like the arrival of guests from all doors at once, the empty room is busy again breathing in the sea.
Staples’s “guests” are the catalog of her dead which includes old boyfriends, grandparents, a postman, neighbors, childhoods, and horses. The celebrated painter, NC Wyeth, and his grandson, Newell, who were killed in a tragic accident close to home, are eulogized in a four part poem.
Staples is at once enamored with the world’s beauty as she is aware of its ephemeralness. Her lines fill with gratitude for the given world and a meditative curiosity about the unknown worlds hidden in dreamscapes and the afterlife. They are tethers that pull readers between grief, gratitude, and wonder.
Staples approaches her work with a cautious awareness in her role as a Persephone of sorts in the poem “My Neighbors’ Pools.” But first, I must say something about the poet’s opulent, painterly and almost sinfully symphonic verse. This poem begins:
The way seals ride an incline and sweep like light down scoured tanks, you know they’re dreaming the sea.
Subtle alliteration in every line is sonorous and sweet; the comparison of seals swimming with the movement of light is deft; and the logical leap to “dreaming the sea” is stunning. The collection is ripe with such exuberant language. Also, take this: “He slides out his chair with a violin’s scraping” and this: “grass thin hit of light.”
Staples makes a habit of trespassing and swimming in the neighbors’ pools not in the expected months of spring or summer, but in autumn--a season associated with death. The poem ends:
...I plummet and rise through the underside of autumn, scarlet bleed of maple on oak, the skin-taut border of water and air christened in cold and shining with dark leaves.
Staples is “christened” and reborn in this season of “dark leaves” and growing darkness. As a herald from the underworld--or the worlds beyond this one--she takes readers by the hand, by the rein, and gives us a language--which is the ultimate window --through which we experience life. And this is to say nothing of the metaphor of writing as trespass (entering forbidden and private arenas) and of writing as compulsion (the act that causes one to unlock gates and loosen knots in the secret hours of night).
The painter Andrew Wyeth, trained by his father N.C. Wyeth, was known to walk through private homes settling on small domestic moments for inspiration. What Wyeth did with his brush Staples has done with her pen. And as Andrew Wyeth was said to infuse the landscape of his paintings with the spirits of the dead, so does Catherine Staples in this dazzling, dizzying, rich and deeply satisfying collection.
Catherine Staples grew up in Dover Massachusetts and still spends part of each summer on Cape Cod. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, Commonweal, Third Coast, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Southern Poetry Review, Rattle, Prime Number, and Quarterly West among other journals. Honors include the University of Pennsylvania's William Carlos Williams Award, the New England Poetry Club's Boyle/Farber Award, and the Southern Poetry Review's Guy Owen Prize. She teaches in the Honors program at Villanova University and lives with her family in Devon, Pennsylvania.