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Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s ‘Handheld Mirror’: Well-chosen words as emotional abstract art

This Philly-area poet uses words almost as abstract art, to tease out powerful emotions or make vivid very meaningful times and places. Someone should make a painting or a movie of some of her lines.

The Handheld Mirror of the Mind by Diane Sahms-Guarnieri

The Handheld Mirror of the Mind by Diane Sahms-Guarnieri bookjacketRead morescanned in (custom credit)

The Handheld Mirror of the Mind

By Diane Sahms-Guarnieri

Kelsay Books. 103 pp. $17

Reviewed by Frank Wilson

Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s latest collection addresses much of import: separation of a mother from her child, loss of a beloved aunt, an elderly woman’s loss of memory, environmental anxiety, all set within a passion for the light and color embodied in flowers, trees, and birds.

But what catches your attention right away is the innovative use of language Sahms-Guarnieri has taken to employing in order to address them.

The epigraph to “Global Dreamers in Coexistence,” the first poem in the book, quotes Picasso’s reaction to ancient cave paintings: “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years.” The poem itself is a nine-page meditation — at once kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory — on the cave paintings of Lascaux. What catches the eye, right at the start, is this:

Modernity in nature does exist

and always has depending upon

the angle of the observer.

So when the speaker in the poem — who sees the images on the wall as “figurative language, / abstract symbols” — stops to consider the oldest cave painting in the world (a red stippled disk that has been carbon-dated to 40,000 years ago, a time coinciding with the arrival in Europe of the first anatomically modern humans), she is struck by the mystery of it all:

This sacred red spot, still alive.

One can only wonder, ponder:

Who was its creator / what was he thinking

in this era of developmental cognitive reasoning,

before writing? Before speaking?

This introductory poem sets the stage for what follows, verbal constructs that seem very much like abstract art put into words. Take this, for example, from “The Great White Light”: “traveling last miles of dusk along New Jersey Parkway / wetlands’ green hairs waving risen palms / communion-wafer sun sinking into chalice-rimmed horizon / spilling burgundy forgiveness, thoughts setting ….”

Dusk as distance, sun and horizon as eucharist and chalice — talk about making us see the world afresh. Someone should undertake to make a painting of these lines. Also note how the running together — “traveling … Parkway / wetlands’ green hairs waving” — adds to the effect.

This is not mere ornament. These are graftings of image and emotion, as becomes painfully apparent in “I dream of you, always as a child,” which is inscribed “for Johnny.”

The title is the opening line of the poem, which continues:

though you are thirty-two now

my tenth year of unanswered prayers’

spiraling pleads like inner workings

of a conch shell holding sea’s mighty voice,

as one roaring droplet of hollow echo.

That image of unanswered prayers spinning downward, like a plane crashing to earth, with the spinning itself a pleading, rends the heart.

One becomes accustomed to these baroque phrasings as one reads along, only to be taken aback afresh when they are discarded for unadorned lament, as happens in “Our twisted and forged fates are not but a dream, a poem, and a myth,” inscribed “for Joey”:

I write letters that I never send.

Only cards. It’s easier that way.

The cards try to say what I cannot.

It is the best I can do. And you

never email, telephone, or ever

send a card, yet that does not pain me

as much as never being able to see you

or to be a part of your life.

If poetry is anything, it is the search for combinations of words whose sound and sense most nearly match that mix of heartbreak and joy at the heart of things that we call experience. The poems gathered in this volume demonstrate that the search can often prove pretty intense.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at