HEART AND SOUL : Poems by Carolyn Grassi

—A Review by Pushpa MacFarlane

Published by Patmos Press, CA Heart and Soul
, poems by Carolyn Grassi, Foreword by Ron Hansen, Patmos Press, San Francisco, CA, 2014, 142 pages, paperback $15.

The poems in Carolyn Grassi’s new collection, Heart and Soul, present themselves like little windows, their shades drawn aside inviting us to peek in, step inside for a tête-à-tête, and share evocative happenings from her family album, only to carry back with us, reminisces of our own experiences, now buzzing and stirring up memories of our childhood and landscapes, longing for travel and yearning for love.

The suede-like book cover with an illustration in deep red and green is incredibly inviting. The excellent painting by Johanna Baruch, titled Wisdom and Innocence, almost sums up the gradual transformation from innocence to wisdom presented in the poems—a youth’s progression to adulthood. Conversely, the poems in this collection also represent what the cover art depicts to me—some kind of heaven, where an assemblage of conflicting elements all come together to create harmony.

Heart and Soul, contains poems of the heart—of love for the family, friends, and beloved, and poems about the soul—about religious belief, the convent, prayer, and a loving bond created between a young woman of the order and a young priest. Moreover, these poems appear like flags on a sprawling map pinpointing specific locations where the poet’s memories were created and relived. The stories not only take us across the geographic landscape from Brooklyn and Massachusetts to San Francisco and Santa Clara in California, but also abroad—to Rome, Paris, Strasbourg, Versailles—places one might only dream about or hope to visit.

The anecdotes in the poems about the family, of children growing up, or taking family trips, might remind you of your own experiences or make you wish they were your own. For Grassi, these were not just scenic trips she took as a tourist. This was where her life played out, where every joy, remorse, ecstasy, or euphoria was experienced, and where her memories were created. With the warmth of her words and passion she displays in her writing, she has demonstrated to us how these past experiences are now her legacy for her immediate family and inspiration for future poems she might craft.

Leaving Brooklyn by Ferry is a good choice of poem to start this collection. It describes the poet’s journey with her family, from Brooklyn to California, and indeed symbolizes the transference and shift of emotions the poet herself experiences in her life. The poem depicts a point-to-point tracing of waters—of life at sea—for three generations in the poet’s family, which culminates in the third generation leaving for California, the endpoint being, “the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, San Francisco” with “sun peeking in Pacific fog”. But before the family leaves Brooklyn, there are several Von Trapp-like expeditions to the parks, with a train of children and Mrs. Hanley, enjoying a picnic, “…while singing
                      camp songs along the way, rounding the path
                      past the sprinklers’ pool, struggling up hill,
                      down a slope into a lush green meadow ringed
                      by maples and elms…Tura Lura Lura, Tura Lura Li…”

Those of us from the West, or anyone who hasn’t camped in the Catskills, will be lured to see the pictures painted by Grassi in her poems, the wonder of Silver Lake, Camp Oh-Neh-Tah, with “white birches, silvery aspens,
                      thick pine groves glistening along the shore.
                   …giant turtles winging through murky waters…
                   …Owls hooting. Bats zigzagging—,”

sleeping under the sky and a blanket of stars and planets, getting homesick and thinking of Christmas Eve, tinsel, and crushed pine needles. The narrative thread continues to weave patterns and references to the cloth—the clergy, the parish, the Novitiate, and the poet’s ambition of becoming a Maryknoll missioner in Massachusetts.
                     “A subtle divine presence I first
                      felt as a child at summer camp in the Catskills…”

The poet recalls daydreaming in the wild wheat fields of the Ipswich Bird Sanctuary in Massachusetts—or indulging in girl talk with friends, “sharing hopes for future missions to the Serengeti plain”, then rushing to not be late for Vespers—“veil flying, dogs chasing, scapular catching on brambles…”

It is during this spiritual phase that the poet meets her future partner in life.  Ironically, from this point onward, the poetic voice is almost indistinguishable from the voice in the memoirs or the voice narrating the poignant story about Teresa de Avila and Juan de la Cruz, or Claire and Francis of Assisi, or Magdalene, as if the voice has transformed into the voice of love itself.
                      “I see your eyes in the stars, feel your heart beating
                       in earth’s pulse, hear you whispering my name…”  And again,
                     “‘Practice detachment’ is what I preach,
                       yet longing flies as a bird through the windows
                       of my eyes…Forget-me-nots
                       proliferate in my memory, hearing his familiar 
                       footsteps in our garden.”

Like a travel brochure, the titles of the poems stand out as signposts to someplace exotic and exclusive—New York 42nd Street Library. Rio Del Mar, Aptos, California. The Lawrence Tree, Taos, New Mexico. Mont Saint-Michel. Reims. Germany, 1938. The most public place is rendered private by personal innuendo and romance in the air. They are bookmarks on the pages of the poet’s life, of her travels, of family jaunts, and of her happy days with her now, dear departed beloved.

The poems that reminisce about the couples’ many rituals and romping seem to stay with you, making you wonder about your own love life—the bursts and explosions of love and shooting stars. In that respect, you savor every brick and mortar of the places you’ve seen and every little detail of what you did with your lover, and not the little mess-ups or disappointments or spats that normally occur along the way.  For instance, in The Grand Canyon, you’ll find a couple’s wildest dream fulfilled. Just the rim is visible. What lies beneath must have been more gratifying—two souls straying towards each other and becoming one. Candid romances amid nature or hidden caves—pure and “enfolding each other’s blissfulness, a warm ‘us-ness’ quickly, slowly, gladly, flowing..”.

Some poems contain lines written as one long thought—one long sentence that sparks endless phrases like Christmas lights—one green wire that winds down the entire length of the tree. When you’re done reading you remember the images that showed in the light. In Smoldering Ashes, Inverness, California, the phrases sparkle in memory of Joseph Grassi:
                     “…how high our longing
                                        how deep our grief
                                                           gone you’ve gone
                        beyond the blue horizon
                                        wind and stars
                                                           memory’s returning
                         back to the beginning
                                        your discovering
                                                           a pair of mollusks
                         cleaving to burnt-sienna cliffs
                                        your up-close dearness…”

Poems that speak of love are most scintillating. Even though some poems have sprung from the poet’s imagination, they have the same ring as the morsels of memoirs carried throughout the river of words that flow from this book of poems. It is hard to tell what was real and what imagined. They’re made of the same fiber—of love and longing, of joy, reveling and rejoicing. Some are like torrents that pick up bits of something it comes across or pulls away, while others lie deep, without ruffling up the past—serene and full of reflection.

I found a potpourri of poems and styles in Carolyn Grassi’s Heart and Soul. Some contain stray lines that weave a picture, leaving the imagination to view and create something memorable, a tapestry from lines commemorating remembrances like “flute music fading in the underbrush,” or painting a panoramic picture like “wine-stained lips, and cloven feet stamping the earth.” Then there are lists in poems, like mementos from surroundings or happenings of her life—remembering the things her beloved loved—“foxes, quails, humming birds, roses, olives, oaks, laurels, mountain tops”; or naming the stars for a whirlwind galaxy she has been traveling—“I crown you with laurel leaves     prince charming     Prince of peace    my darling dearest    dusty golden bees     hearts on fire     our imperfect beings    warts and all    northern lights    shooting starts…”   

Well known names pop up like knobs to drawers you want to open and see what they contain. Some are luminaries—poets who have inspired Grassi, some with interesting experiences or personal stories to reveal. Wordsworth, both William and Dorothy, make their presence felt, along with Coleridge, and a Homage to John Keats. Søren Kierkegaard, James Merrill, Iris Murdoch, and Rilke grace the pages. So is Dante’s presence made known,“within the shadows of a chestnut grove,
                      not far from the sanctuary of a Franciscan church…”

Donatello’s wonders fill “unfamiliar rooms in the Victoria and Albert Museum,” Caravaggio’s “weaving four tiny angels’ feathers within his fingers”; and Salvador Dali, is present with his “portrait of the naked man”.

Although,this collection of poems is titled Heart and Soul, the poem that bears this title was written in memory of a good friend. For the poet, it appears to me, the whole process of writing and putting this volume together has been driven by a personal and strong bond of love and dedication to a life-long companionship that was nurtured and strengthened with their travels together, their beliefs, their family, and the friends they shared. The poem, Do This in Memory of Me encapsulates Grassi’s personal world she created with her husband and children, until Easter lilies filled ‘alcoves of the Mission chapel, palm trees dancing Alleluias along San Jose’s Alameda’.

It is no surprise that the last poem in this collection is aptly, Adios, Vaya Con Dios where the poet confesses:

                        Sometimes I foolishly imagine a miracle bringing
                        you back to life, or I day-dream us back together…
                                                            … driving down
                        to Santa Clara, our garden home of hearts’ delight.

Dialing back to the months after her husband’s demise, the poet says: I’m numb with loss, seeking for traces of your presence
                        wherever we have been, as when I finger the line
                        of light turning around the sun-dial’s center…   

 With time passing, Carolyn Grassi has resigned to acknowledge and recall “the ordinary resurrections” and in a way, collected her writing from over the years allowing them to blossom and disperse as:

                       For Joe

PUSHPA MACFARLANE is a poet and a regular reader at The Willow Glen Poetry Project series in San Jose, CA. Her anthology, Remembering: Poems Read at Willow Glen Books published by Jacaranda Press, San Jose, CA in 2011 won acclaim in the local poetry community. Some of her own work has been published in Shared Light, and No Ordinary Language published by The Willow Glen Poetry Project. She is the lead editor of the upcoming Volume Three of this series.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Eddie Grassi
    Apr 08, 2014 @ 09:23:17

    Nice work mom. I am so proud of you! This is a beautiful blog and I look forward to learning more about your poetry and sharings. Thank you. Eddie Grassi


  2. Carolyn Grassi
    Apr 22, 2014 @ 15:48:24

    Thanks so much Eddie! And I look forward to reading your poetry too, remembering well your marvelous poems! love, Mom


  3. Linda Mary Montano
    Nov 04, 2017 @ 23:35:22

    Carolyn. Beautiful


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"Carolyn Grassi's 'Heart and Soul' is fascinating in its fluent and affecting blend of memoir and poetry, reminiscence and sheer invention, loss, grief and homage. Adopting a persona at times, or imitating a seminal influence on her writing at other junctures, [Carolyn Grassi] has created a quilt of memories and reflections on a life's education—the journey we all hope to make from becoming to being, or from acting as disciples to representing ourselves and our art as apostles..."
Read the complete foreword by Ron Hansen in 'Heart and Soul' published by Patmos Press, San Francisco, CA.

Ron Hansen, author



Carolyn Grassi

Ron Hansen and Jim Torrens

Blase Bonpane, Ph.D

Lit Prof at SCU

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