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Harbinger by Shelley Puhak

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Harbinger by Shelley Puhak, 2021 winner of the National Poetry Series and chosen by Nicole Sealey, explores what it means to be an artist, how you become an artist, and what influences an artist. Opening with “Portrait of the Artist as Cassandra,” readers will see how frenzied artists can become with all that they see, experience, and feel: “I’m feverish with all the knowing. Full./I’ve gained ten pounds, easily.//” (pg. 3) Can you feel that sense of overwhelm?

Puhak’s poems explore the impact of motherhood and not fitting in as a girl on art through clear images and relatable experiences. From “Portrait of the Artist as a Twelve-Year-Old Girl,” “Sometimes the door opened and I joined the others. We prayed/over oatmeal. And then I walked to school. I had a red binder./The wrong kind. The rings never aligned. There was no/satisfying click.//After, I headed back to my tower, kicking a pebble./”

Puhak has captured so much nuance of an artist’s life, particularly of a parent. One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Portrait of the Artist as Mommy”: “mommy of the stringy hair, of the jawing/mouth   mommy of the ruins    mommy down/the staircase under cobblestone, limestone,// (pg. 16) And later in the poem, “The language is lost./How do you lose a language?/mommy who is scared to answer     mommy//of the mimosa   mommy of the smartphone/” You again get that sense of overwhelm and the fullness of life, the hectic and the absence of language to articulate all that you are all at the same time.

In “Portrait of the Artist Telling a Bedtime Story,” she adds, “Let me tell you: of all I carry, you are the lightest./I was taught to call this a burden./I refuse it.//” (pg.17) And in “Portrait of the Artist, Gaslit” again the narrator is refusing to be burdened – no matter who is placing the onus on her: “I see your scorched earth &/now will raise my gas can//” (pg. 30)

Harbinger by Shelley Puhak is a forewarning to us all that more is to come from us and happen to us, as well as inform who we become. Her narrator is “like my own bird/dog in the brambles, pointing only/pointing.” (“Portrait of the Artist as an Artist” pg.45)

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Shelley Puhak is the author of Harbinger, a 2021 National Poetry Series selection. Puhak’s second book, Guinevere in Baltimore, was selected by Charles Simic for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, and her first, Stalin in Aruba, was awarded the Towson Prize for Literature. Her prose has appeared in the Atlantic, the Iowa Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review, and her nonfiction debut, The Dark Queens, was released in 2022.

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