Review of Catherine Abbey Hodges, Instead of Sadness

Written for Ruminate Magaazine

Teeming with imagery and intelligence, Catherine Abbey Hodges’s Instead of Sadness(Gunpowder Press, 2016) is as much a collection of moments as of poetry. With dovelike gentleness, each piece rests on the thoughts and images of a particular moment, held aloft by the layeredness of meaning that makes up the minutiae of human experience. The reader encounters each poem as through a microscope; one is aware of the smallness of the view, but in that closer look is simultaneously startled by the complexity in the everyday.

Hodges takes time for birds and bugs, for sewing, for leaves. Her biological specificity is remarkable (a gold star to anyone else who can casually wield the word nasturtium), but more remarkable still is the depth of insight Hodges draws from a singular brush with the natural world. What Hodges writes in her poem “October, Ellensburg” is equally true of her own poetry: “Nothing is only one thing.” Each instance, each utterance, is in fact a rich trove of connections and echoes, recollecting the sum of all joy and loss and hope.

“Everything Important” reads like a breath as it begins (or rather, continues),

happens behind my back.
Water lilies open, then close. 
Nations are born. Friends up and leave
their sturdy bodies. The stonechat takes flight.

These fleeting absences, when the speaker has blinked too quickly and missed the important thing, seem to sigh like regret—an exhaling:

And in the spring, however faithfully I check
for the first bloom along the secret alley
of camellias, I will be looking away,
will see them only once they’re a jostling palaver
of pink and white, so impossible a brightness
I will forget to be disappointed.

The last line—the forgetting to be disappointed—inhales with triumphant wonder. It is the inhalation that marks the speaker’s will to continue looking, to continue hoping to see everything and catching only the most instantaneous and beautiful. And in that one breath of camellias along the secret alley we find the birth of nations, the death of friends, the cycles of love and despair upon which the axle of human experience turns.

Throughout Instead of SadnessHodges invites her readers to take a breath and dwell in the moment. She invites us to muse with her over the ironies of motherhood, marriage, aging, growth, and death. And as she reflects on her role as a professor of writing, she teaches us to dissect and savor the experiences that are the basis of artistic inspiration.

As a young writer myself, I’ve felt the wisdom of this book gather under me. I found “Word. Phrase. Poem.” both eye-opening and succinct, as it reads in its entirety:

Does it create
like the bee at the sage
its own small wind?

Like the ant, does it carry
something larger than itself
without swaggering?

Like many of her poems, “Word. Phrase. Poem.” derives its power from its quietness. And Hodges practices exactly what she preaches, as these six small lines carry an entire poetic education.

Catherine Abbey Hodges’s collection Instead of Sadness contemplates the vastest of ideas through the specificity of a moment’s observation. Often inspired by intersections with the natural world, Hodges’s poems are a breath of relief from the speed-read pace of modern life. Each takes time to delve and ask and treasure. Devout in their sincerity, and consistent in their comfort, Hodges’s poems ring true with the treatment she, herself, prescribes: “and words / (even then I knew this) words / can make you well.”

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