Here are some reviews of books by Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas
Chronicling her father's battle with failing health and dementia, the author’s book contains two dozen poems that examine the physical and emotional side of the condition. While Grellas' father is the one directly impacted by his health, the case of dementia is one that spreads to the entire family. Capturing the emotional turmoil and battle of wills entailed in being the caregiver for one’s own parent, each of these poems offers rays of hope and commiseration for the harder struggles. These poems are not meant to inspire pity or condolences but rather illuminate the feelings and internal dialogue of a person doing everything they can to will a parent back to good health and better days.
Depending on one’s circumstances, these poems will either be eye-opening or aim straight for the heartstrings and memories. Written with a vocabulary that captures every heart swell and crushed hope, the selections are short but make a deep, lasting impact. The poet’s choice of words is light to the point of being ghostly, but underneath feathery metaphors lies the ultimate weight of inevitable mortality. Each poem lies in a sequence that tells a story of good days and eventual decline, ending on the necessity to move on while always remembering. Because of the in-the-moment perspective in these poems, this book may be difficult for someone going through a similar scenario as the author had but should still provide light and catharsis once the struggle of caregiving has ended. Nearly pocket-sized and well able to be read in just an hour or so, this short collection of poems is no less emotional for its brevity.
I’m a fan of poetic forms. Haiku. Sonnet. Pantoum. The elusive sestina. I think there is something magical that happens when a poet jumps into a scaffolding. The scaffolding lifts us, readers and author, to unique connections and dramatic conclusions. Which makes Alice in Ruby Slippers, a collection of poems by Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas, an unexpected adventure. The mixing of tales in its titles signifies we’re going on a journey of what we think – on entirely new and independent paths, devised by Grellas, just as she’s modifying the poetic forms to suit her voice and her plan for her poems. Lured by the promise of familiar sonnets and other poems, I’m granted entry into a world of Grellas’ imagination.
What are the elements that make this journey wild and wonderful? Let’s talk about rhyming. Rhyme is a traditional component of many poetic forms. What makes rhyme special, I think, is the expected connections and clever use of language as well as the emphasis on the sound of your poem. In her poem, “Without Vision,” she writes: “a secret illness writes itself in Braille / soundless as the unseen breath of trees, / it lives, grows, sighs and breathes within / the shadow of the body’s fleshy veil” (73). These lines are jammed with exciting rhyme. The end-rhymes, the middle of the line rhymes. My favorite is the hardworking rhyme of trees/breathes which replicates the soft sighs immediately preceding it. The rhyme that works like this embeds the reader in the experience of the poem.
Grellas makes sound a foundation of her poems. In “On Underestimating the Aftermath,” Grellas writes about a daughter caring for dying parents. Despite the daughter’s hard work and knowledgeable caretaking, the grief and loss are profound. “But when dying was over, their eulogy read … / there was no one to tell me, good girl. They were dead,” (71). In the repetition of single syllables and the final simple three words, Grellas draw out the experience of a huge loss and finality of that singular loss. In “Since You’ve been Gone,” sound is the central component of the poem itself. Whether it's music that reminds the narrator of the passed person or how they “play / old messages to hear your voice again –“ (19) Grellas reminds us the sound evokes emotions and deftly wields sound to guide us through her poetic constructions.
Grellas also uses sound and rhyme and rhythm to reveal the speechless, soundless, almost sacred moments in life. In “The Cancer Diagnosis” a couple waits for information and Grellas documents the time “when nothing said conveys all thoughts repressed,” (24). Or in “The Sequoia,” Grellas writes about a moment of transcendence in the landscape, “through bars of golden beams across the sod, / she disappeared forever on the day / communion with a tree brought her to God” (46). The rhyme of sod and God spans the same space of the sacred communion that can make one disappears. Grellas’ words hold the space that sound cannot truly describe.
In the end Grellas challenges us to do what she does throughout Alice in Ruby Slippers – to do “Six Impossible Things after Reading Alice.” The last of which is a question that Grellas has tried to answer and hands to the reader for their thoughts. “I’d like to know why lives collide – name Love our home, none left denied” (80). After traveling through Grellas structured poems and remade foundations, I’m certainly willing to try – will you be too? I strongly recommend reading this rich book aloud so you too can reveal the sounds – and silences – evoked in Grellas beautiful lines.
Alice in Ruby Slippers. Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas. Kelsay Books.
Alice in Ruby Slippers by Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas uses the rather unusual title to give us a clue to the book's theme. The title references two modern female pop-culture icons: Alice Liddell from Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz. Through this, the reader is told that the book will be about women; that the voice in the book will be—like Dorothy and Alice—young, virginal, and on a quest (Dorothy wanted to get back home; Alice simply to understand the bewildering world in which she suddenly finds herself). The book frequently returns to these two ideas. Before the main text begins, the reader finds quotations by Lewis Carroll and Frank L. Baum. Carroll speaks of believing unbelievable things; the author quotes the famous line from the film version of Baum's The Wizard of Oz, "A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others." And the book's dedication is "for my mother."
All of these elements signal what we will find in that poems that follow. The opening poem, "Lost in Kansas," refers, of course, to Dorothy's situation before the tornado transports her to Oz and states the narrator's desire to settle, to find repose, to be secure. This desire is expressed in a poetic epistle to the Good Witch Glinda. The poem ends with the lines, "I've clicked my heels not once but thrice, / And still can't find a place called home,/ and still can't find a place called home." The first poem is an expression of a desire, a wish, that runs all through the book.
The first cluster of poems relates to the death of a mother. The very poignant poems, "Since You've Been Gone," has the sorrowful, powerful line, "A dream can be a devastating place / though more alarming still to wake and face / the truth of what is real." The first section of the book deals with loss. But loss never simply involves the person who is lost and the one who lost that person. Many poems represent memories of growing up, but also the terrible liturgy of cancer treatment and the aftermath losing a mother. The section also contains meditations on bereavement, poems that parallel literary reference with the narrator's loss, mythic reference (Calypso, Titania, Rapunzel) and mention of other figures from scenarios of loss in well-known books and poems.
Pop culture is better known that literature or classical mythology, and the book draws on these sources as well. Alice in Ruby Slippers mentions the film version of The Wizard of Oz several times, to Billie Holiday's grim song, "Strange Fruit." The poem, "Final Girl," about the stock character-girl who manages to survive the designs of a serial killer in modern films like Friday the Thirteenth, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street. The last part of that sonnet is particularly poignant:
… Each scene unfurls
to horrors played, where killers never leave
an out for teenage boys, but final girls
are always spared. The females take reprieve—
beyond The Ring, What Lies Beneath is grim
but rest assured the final girl will win.
The poem is about female resilience. It is a marvelous way of stating, with grim irony, that women survive; like the iconic "final girl" in horror movies, they do not let themselves be overwhelmed and destroyed. The poem is a brilliantly reframed exploration of the nature of personal loss, drawing its images from a source not often used in writing about poignant and personal loss but marvelously powerful and effective.
The second section focuses on loss and incorporates the mythic. It is still focused upon iconic female figures. There are poems that reference Emily Dickenson, Alice Liddell, and others; there are more poems on family loss; and also exploration of female types in such poems as "Charlatan" and "She Walks in Cruelty" (an inversion of Byron's "She Walks in Beauty"); humorous poems such as "What's Under Your Kilt?", historical lyrics ("For Larnell Bruce, Jr.," "Odalisque"), poems that touch on issues ("A Mother's Message to her Son"), and poems that are intertextual, referencing well-known works by other authors (e.g., "As If the Hours Wait," subtitled, after reading, Because I could not stop for death (famous poem by Emily Dickenson).
Alice in Ruby Slippers encompasses a great deal of variety and contains a range of subjects; but always, the theme of womanhood and, especially, of loss, ties these varied poems together into a powerful unity. It explores the deep wells of personal loss, from the loss of childhood, of friendships, of place, but especially the profound grief of a daughter losing her mother. The poems are formalist, and this adds to their music and lyricism—and to the poignant sadness—the reader encounters in the book. When it comes to sadness, poetry can be cathartic—and such is the case with Alice in Ruby Slippers.