A Clear Space on a Cold Day
Roger Mitchell


American Book Review (Jan/Feb 1988, p. 19)

Roger Mitchell, Director of the Indiana University Writer's Conference, presents good, listenable poems in his third collection.  His poetry goes down smooth, is always interesting, as in "Visiting Country Graves with My Daughters" when "We drift / apart, calling the names of strangers, back / and forth, the day they came, the day they left.  The first lines of "Cinderella" ("When they found her prostrate in the garden, talking to a beetle, they locked her in the loft") demonstrate how well Mitchell catches the reader's attention. We find ourselves likewise taken by the controlled calm of one who sees, "Walking home alone at night/...myself as always walking home alone at night" and who observes, in the "Uneven Light" of a Greyhound depot, how "After ten minutes of being stared at/one of the women blossoms into a girl."  There's good imagery, as in Mitchell's tiny portrait of "The Neighbor" who holds a bag, "The bag wrinkled everywhere like a new child" and in "For the Children at U.S. Grant School, Sheboygan, Wisconsin": "Or was hair a kind of water that your hands drank?"

Some fine picture poems, too.  Reminiscent of Whitman's "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" are "Keene Valley, Late Fall, Starset," "Upright and Fallen," "A Man," and other portraits.  And here's Mitchell at his finest, in a tour de force I quote whole:


Here comes history, everything blinking
and flashing, insisting that it can sit
on the horn all day, drive down the wrong side
of any issue it likes, knock the cart
full of carefully piled oranges into the street,
scattering the good gray people of the town
as though we were so much hen dust.
Where is the preacher, the doctor, the good
grim killer we hired to harbor the law?
Is he the one at the wheel, or is he
the one lashed to the stretcher in back,
writhing and dying before he arrives?

There are anecdotal poems ("To Walt Whitman on American's Birthday"), more tours de force such as "Roots" and "Variations," with its "All right" and "Do you buy that?" and "Ok, I give up"; amusing crowd-pleasers like "Homage to Beatrix Potter," "School Dream," and the purposely dumb "Pehr Kalm and Lars Yungstroem: Songs and Dances"; meditations on such as William Stillman and the lost wilderness and "Starting to Starve." Like I said, this is a good solid book, mainly nonallusive in these days of cultural illiteracy, filled with careful qualifications and self-correcting thoughts.

  Dick Allen, American Book Review