BOOK REVIEW: Degrees of Latitude 

Cold as Childhood: Degrees of Latitude breaks Laurel Blossom's pain into pieces

The Poetry Society of South Carolina Presents Laurel Blossom and Linda Lee Harper [Buy Now]
Nov. 14, 7 p.m.
Second Presbyterian Church
342 Meeting St.
(843) 723-9237

I'd like to hear Laurel Blossom read a poem.

That's the nature of poetry. It's best when read aloud.

In this case, I'd like to hear the timbre of Blossom's voice, the shape of her lines, the stress of certain words, and the way she sets a mood.

And I'd like to witness the source of the pain I found in her book-length poem, the touching and elegaic Degrees of Latitude (2007).

It's a short autobiographical work haunted by memory — of an absent father, of an out-of-control mother, and of an ache that continues to pursue her everyday as she struggles to stay sober and care for her precocious young son.

Though haunted by memory — Blossom compares the freeze of an arctic winter to her family life, "cold as childhood" — Degrees of Latitude discredits memory by representing the myriad forms it takes: traces, bits, shards, impressions.

Sometimes these fragments feel like a dream. Sometimes they feel like cold-blooded reality. All are powerful. Most are unreliable.

Even so, we see how her mother longed for her father to return from World War II. How she reveled, in spite of her longing, in being independent and self-empowered. She was a drinker of martinis, a wearer of red lipstick and high heels. And during that time, she was just beginning a life as a world-class drunk, a development that would eventually devastate her already rocky marriage.

"My father's new wife wore wedgies and ankle socks.

My mother shriveled and died. It was the nerves.

My father exploded on the golf course. It was the heart.

My father's new wife became my father's new widow."

From Degrees of Latitude, we learn Blossom is her mother's daughter. She grew up to become an alcoholic, free-wheeling free-love practitioner, and a single mother to Harry, her beloved lover of science and cartography.

It's a narrative arc you'd expect to be melodramatic, even treacly, like Robin Wright Penn in Forrest Gump.

Oprah and the ladies of The View, you might say, would love this story of a single mother against the odds.

But Blossom avoids this. She even transcends self-pity by shattering the image of her bad childhood and even worse adulthood. She mixes shards of memory with other shards: overheard conversation, punchlines, newspaper headlines, family expressions, and music.

She also has a knack for inventing koan-like statements:

"Every name implies its absence."

"[He] never saw a movie he hadn't seen before."

"Open marriage like a wound. Open marriage like a door."

"There are no landmarks in this country."

The net effect is ironic. Blossom evokes deep sympathy while avoiding a holistic delivery. Fragments, it seems, are more honest and complete. While they are divided as parts of a life, they are united by a singular set of emotions: regret and forgiveness.

Praise for Blossom's achievement, however, must be tempered with acknowledgement of a major flaw.

She structured her poem according to geography, beginning Degrees of Latitude on a Russian icebreaker at the North Pole (the cover image comes from her journey there), moving to the Arctic Circle, then to the Temperate Zone, and onward until she reaches the South Pole.

While she actually starts at the North Pole, she doesn't in reality get to the South Pole. And aside from some brief returns to ice and snow and earthquakes and hurricanes and other terrestrial phenomena, Blossom infrequently compares her life story to the story of the earth, undermining the double meaning of "latitude."

So that cracking noise you hear? That's the sound of a metaphor being stretched beyond repair.

But then again, maybe I need to hear Degrees of Latitude from the source.

After all, this is poetry.

It's best when read aloud.


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