Review: “Words We Might One Day Say”


Words We Might One Day Say, Holly Karapetkova
Washington Writers Publishing House, October 2010, $11.70

The title of Holly Karapetkova’s debut collection, Words We Might One Day Say, comes from a brief poem, “Before Language,” in which she describes a moment between mother and infant that precedes the time when speech becomes necessary. Karapetkova writes charmingly and authentically, at times incisively, about contemporary motherhood, in a way that few authors do, but her most startling poems deal with a mythos of motherhood, girlhood and womanhood ancient in origin and unbroken in transmission. The language, tropes and ingenious spirit of folklore, myth and legends, with their shapeshifting heroines, surprises and reversals, is Karapetkova’s wellspring, and it never fails her here, as she writes about changelings, foundlings and stolen children — even a “Lost Mommy” who, when her children ask “Where were you,” replies, “Fighting that witch, your mother, all day.”

In the opening poem, “The Woman Who Wanted a Child” begs a white tern diving for fish in the marsh, a “mother who has so many children” to “help me a mother who has none.” As a human, the narrator cannot feed the infant bird, and the mother tern is no help, so the woman transforms into a fish.

… My daughter dove, grasped me in her beak, and
swallowed me whole. Now, I live within her light body. We
spend our days upon the high winds, bumping only against the
sky. Now, I feed her.

Her narrative tone is casual, candid and self-assured even as she rhymes a trio of Shakespearean sonnets scattered throughout the collection and, in free form, couplets and prose poems, spins new legends from borrowed threads. In “The Girl With the Sheep’s Heart,” a rural doctor recounts the tale of a peasant girl who, spurned by a goatherd “who happened to look striking in dungarees,” gouged her heart out with a saber, leaving her aging parents in an unfortunate predicament. The doctor performs a successful transplant, and the girl is happily transformed, much to her parents’ relief.

She brings her mother fresh peaches
in the afternoon and helps her father
tend to the slaughter, blood
of the new goats, arrogant roosters
runs red against her skin.
Believe me when I tell you,
she never sheds as much as a tear.

Karapetkova also possesses the unfortunately rare ability to write socially and historically conscious poems that come from a genuine, personal place, without overreaching. A number of these are set in Bulgaria, where the author spent several years and still returns as an artist in residence, and in “Dinner With Foreigners,” she writes movingly about an outsider who finds among strangers a deeper sense of belonging.

And when you remember
the night you remember
how it took place
entirely in your language,
whatever that was.

These poems speak in a language that, from the first line, feels soothingly familiar. Karapetkova’s characters seem to breathe in an atmosphere where the pure joy and freedom of the imagination has not been stifled into submission, as in a child’s world where dreams and nightmares seamlessly share their space with the tangible.