Image of Echo: Poems
Release Date: 
January 14, 2015
Bottom Dog Press
Reviewed by: 

“a tribute to . . . literary ancestors . . .”

In one of his letters, the poet John Keats famously spoke of a quality he believed to be pre-eminent in the minds of “men of Achievement.” He named it “negative capability,” which could be recognized when a person was “capable of being in uncertainty, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

As doctor and poet, Keats inhabited both worlds: walking the straight road paved with fact and reason, but also the route of instantaneous access to emotional and aesthetic knowledge of the world through art.

It is this second forked path that Christina Lovin treads in her new collection, Echo, in which she records not only her own personal history, but our shared American past of the 50s and 60s.

The book has six quite disparate sections, each one worthy of a separate discussion.

The first poem in the collection, ‘Echo 1,” introduces a section of autobiographical poems detailing the poet’s upbringing in the rural South. Here, Lovin envisions a role for herself as “the girl to witness and fill in the blank spaces”—she will “tell all.” 

The ambition to witness and rescue in poetic form the detritus and ore of a particular period is her goal in this book. These are lyric poems, bound together by a single narrative perspective, but with an epic’s scope.

The metaphor the poet chooses to communicate this goal is the communication satellite of the book’s title, Echo, which first streaked across the skies in 1960, representing America’s effort to extend its technological reach beyond the Earth.

For Lovin, this emblem of the Cold War refigures her growing ability through the medium of reading and writing to exceed the limits of self, or rather, to sustain the double-consciousness of self within the larger context of family and history.

In “Your Lifetime in Pictures,” the narrator recalls first learning of the 20th century’s great and horrifying moments via one of those enormous coffee table albums of the period, finding “memories sometimes more real than [her] own.”

She becomes “the little girl pulled dead/from a well,” “[her] lifetime before [she] even had a life”//disaster, crime, war, scandal—our own and the world’s.”

She inhabits these lifetimes via reading, writing, and art, which offer her access to others’ lives and consciousness.

The book’s second section,  “Echo II,” reflects the narrator’s growing sophistication, able to connect her own small life to the generations that have preceded her, and also Lovin’s formidable grasp of the poetic craft.

In such forms as ghazals, sestinas, and sijo (a Korean form somewhat resembling Haiku), the poet connects her own work to the poetic tradition.

The book’s third section, “Mary’s Child,” chronicles the poet’s loss of innocence, echoing the experience of many other Boomers simultaneously passing through this stage of life.

“Dedicated to the One I Love,” woven playfully out of lines from 60 girl-group anthems, offers a picture of that generation becoming a force for change, ruling the American airwaves via songs that “churn out [their] Silver/Dollar Survey of adolescent prophecies.”

The poem reminds us how those nearly interchangeable girl groups, “a masked Greek chorus,” spoke for that generation of young womanhood, “like one tragic choir.”

Section 4, “Echo-Myth-Information,” moves into the realm of popular culture, memorializing such figures as Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfeld, and Joseph McCarthy, chronicling the concerns and myths of an era.

This section consists of a sequence of interlinked sonnets, beginning with a Heroic Crown of Sonnets, “Myth Information,” followed by a regular Crown of Sonnets, “Trinity,” which traces the history of the Atomic Bomb.

A Crown of Sonnets is a sequence of 7 interlinked 14-line poems, where the last line of each becomes the first line of the one following. 

In a Heroic Crown of Sonnets, one finds an even more complexly patterned grouping.

To borrow poet Marilyn Nelson’s definition, a Heroic Crown of Sonnets consists of fifteen sonnets, “interwined as in a regular crown of sonnets, except that in the heroic crown the last sonnet [of the sequence] is made up of first lines of the previous 14 [poems].”  

The book’s fifth section, “Scandal,” continues in a similar vein. Here, the poems chronicle the famous crimes, criminals, and disasters of the period.

The section offers narratives in the tradition of Frost, E. A. Robinson, or Edgar Lee Masters,  inhabiting figures like the lone survivor of mass murderer Richard Speck’s attack on eight student nurses in 1966 Chicago or the victim of another murderer, Catherine Genovese, stabbed to death as 38 of her neighbors watched in silence.

In the darkly comic sijo, “A Star Fell on Alabama,”  Lovin writes of the hapless Ann Hodges, killed in 1955 when a meteorite fell on her house.

Capturing her final moments, the poem imagines “Ann Hodges resting on a couch/ wanting a break from her dull life,” then wryly comments “She wished she might, she wished she may/She got the wish she wished that day.”

“Confession,” the shortest section of the book, returns to the author’s own life, setting it among the lives of those that preceded her.

The section’s title poem, addressed to her mother, confesses the narrator’s feeling of kinship with her literary forebears, “Amy, Elizabeth, Emily, Jane/Muriel, Sylvia, Gwendolyn, Grace,”  rather than with her biological progenitor.

Explaining this connection to her now-dead mother, the narrator notes the substance of their bond, how “[t]ender and tough, we reason together/of the line, the turn, the image that burns/and sing those perfect words: child,/daughter,a library of mothers” (“Confession”).

This book is clearly a tribute to those literary ancestors and one that lovers of American poetry, particularly those of us who lived through the period, should read.