“Threshold Delivery”: The Needle and the Soundtrack

Patty Seyburn’s most recent book of poetry was published a few months ago by Finishing Line Press, which did a serviceable job. The type is dark and large enough to let me read her poems, even without my glasses on (which in fact have long been out of correction). I wish, however, it were possible for a publisher to provide a soft-cover book in which the cover does not begin to curl shortly after arrival in the mail. Is it too much to ask for a cover that flattens against the book’s pages???? I realize that $20 does not buy what it used to buy, but a book that would have cost $2 fifty years ago at least provided good cover stock.

If I am making such an issue of my discontent with the cover’s quality, it is partly due to an affection for book covers, beginning in childhood, that I have never been able to keep in proportion. Maybe it has something to do with the cover’s ability to help me keep track of where I have shelved or stacked my book; and given the contingency of these habits, I need all the assistance a cover can provide in helping me find the volumes that matter the most to me, as this does. It hardly helps to have a book with a curling cover that makes me put it at the bottom of a stack in hopes of eventually flattening the cover so that its jounce does not irritate me the second I pick it up.

Most certainly Threshold Delivery is a volume I will want to use poems from to show my students prime instances of memorable poems. Among my favorites are “November”; “The Train”; “Long Distance” (Parts 1 and 2); “Sweater”; “After Great Pain”; and “Lightning, 1992-1890.” I have little doubt that other readers will prefer a different half-dozen. An individual poet is interesting to the degree in which readers can’t agree on the poems that deserve the most affection in memory’s dialogue.

The conversation started by the image of a needle in both “November” (the first poem in the volume) and “Lightning, 1892-1890” is an undercurrent of visionary knowledge that conveys itself in the quietest of whispers. The italics of the final line of the latter poem is as effective a sotto voce as anything that still echoes from the great plays of Renaissance England. On a technical level, I’d like to praise the vivacious, subtly varied trimeter of the book’s first poem, which provide an easily accessible case study for anyone seeking how to illustrate the marriage of free verse and metrical nuance.

I confess that I was not able to finish the long poem, “Mah Jongg: An Homage,” in Threshold Delivery, even though it seemed to be an intriguing example of a variation in prose poetry. I have an antipathy to poems that make use of card games that goes back to a traumatic encounter with Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” in my sophomore year of college. This is hardly Seyburn’s fault, and no one should cheat themselves of the pleasure of the many very fine poems in this book simply because of this instance of my irrepressible, idiosyncratic antipathies. My guess is that someday I will get around to read this particular poem, even as I eventually surrendered to the allure of James Merrill’s epic encounter with the ouija board.

Threshold Delivery deserves to be on a short-list of “best books of poetry” of the year. Most books on next year’s short list, in fact, probably won’t be as solid and imaginatively convincing.

As a personal post-script, I would note that many of the poems in this volume feature the presence and voice of Seyburn’s dead mother. In one of those coincidences that mark the convolutions of one’s life, I note that a song hummed by Seyburn’s mother, “Mean to Me,” was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald (among many others). All microphones lead to Fitzgerald, who appears to be this blog’s current favorite recording artist!