The Boys I Borrow by Heather Sellers
(New Issues Press, 2007)
In Heather Sellers’ new book a woman (also named Heather) narrates her experience of dating and marrying David, a roofer with two sons, David Jr. and Jake. Timeless themes of marriage and family are written in contemporary terms: Nintendo, fertility clinics, and global positioning all make appearances in poems that are immediately likeable.
Although some readers may find it hard to look past the domestic subject, the arrangement of the poems is skillful enough to avoid repetition. Poems introducing the family are spliced with more experimental poems like “Found Poem: Jacob’s Homework Handout: “Your Teen Pregnancy Statistics” (p. 22), a list poem on the construction of a house, a poem on old credit card debt and other topics.
Being a fiction writer as well as a poet, Sellers has immense ability to make you feel you’ve come to know her alter-ego, the “Heather” of these poems. She creates a carefully balanced portrait of a multi-dimensional character.
The second chapter is particularly strong, both for its glimpse at Heather’s past life in Florida and for the poems themselves. They add dimension by exploring one of the essential messages of this book—time. “Listening to the New Tom Petty” (p. 44) is quoted in full here:
I’m back in the sinkholes with the boy I loved
Most, left early. Florida bars in the scrub, raccoon shows
And oysters, frog legs, mullet, conch. Possum shacks on the river.
Seersucker. And his mouth: tan inside, salty, cold as a spoon.
I’ve heard he never married. I heard he drinks
Too much. I heard he whispers his own name. Buzzards.
He knew me when I knew me. I keep up.
I know all the words after one close listen. Everyone knows
The words to some songs in little bits and strands.
But I know these words are stray pieces too, even unsung.
I don’t need a crowd, a verse, the bridge.
I don’t miss him. I miss her. And how we laid on time.
The past, as we come to find out, is filled with could-haves and might-have-beens, and a history the speaker wasn’t part of (the boys are already beyond early cildhood by the time Heather enters their lives). The present unfolds one gift at a time. Sellers is surveying a life as it’s been lived, thereby honoring those that have made it what it is.
In a poem on dancing Sellers writes, “We know how to stage the moonlight, and move / Like any small dancing vague family” (p. 55). If there is any criticism, it may be exactly this: that it is a personal series about a small, vague family. We come to know Heather more than any of the other characters—the sons in particular, with their teenage embarrassments, soccer practice, and SAT word lists could almost be any sons, but if the poems are indeed based on the writer’s experiences, this may simply be akin to the memoirist’s understatement, that decision to maintain privacy by simply adding a brush stroke here and there and moving on.
While the poems never veer into the one-dimensional caricature of the step-mom so often found in sitcoms and avoid sentimentality, neither do they challenge the reader with distinctive turns of phrase or startling revelations. These are not the pyrotechnic poems of a debut, nor the seasoned poems of a writer at the pinnacle of their career. Instead, they are the assured, generous, reflective poems of a poet’s second full-length collection.
Readers that enjoy accessible poetry—poetry for a larger audience than other poets, poetry about real things (real being debatable), work akin to that of Ted Kooser, Jim Daniels, Dorianne Laux and others—will find many delights here, just as readers who are determined to interpret “accessible” as meaning too-transparent-writing may find the poems aren’t to their tastes.
Quieter poems don’t seem to garner as much attention as award-winning work by new writers or that of “name” poets, but they should: The Boys I Borrow, if narrow in its scope, is refreshing in its willingness to pay homage to the relationships that define us.
It is unabashedly poetry about something, about the accumulation of memories and belongings, of letting go and embracing love.
Karen Rigby’s second chapbook, Savage Machinery, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in September.