Semisweetness and Light

by Mary Cartledgehayes
Winterset, Iowa: GoldenTree Communications, 2006.
63 pages, $12.95.

Reviewed by Linda Williams

The 43 poems in this little book (4” x 6”) are anything but small.

  • They engage the most important human experiences and emotions.
  • They challenge, comfort, surprise, stun, puzzle, and delight.
  • They speak to the concerns of women and to the long history of women being discounted and oppressed.

How does all this happen?

A poet uses language in a different way from that used by writers of a dictionary definition, a scientific explanation, a historical account, or most fiction. Poems come at an idea obliquely. The poet uses imagery, rhythm, repetition, sound devices (of  many kinds, not just rhyme), tone, and metaphor—to name some of the techniques—to express or portray her or his subject. The question to ask, wrote poet John Ciardi, is not “What does a poem mean?” but “How does a poem mean?”  In other words, all the elements in a poem contribute to its meaning.

Cartledgehayes, a longtime member of EEWC, assures readers that Semisweetness and Light is “not your typical poetry collection” and will be accessible. The poems areaccessible, but they are not simple. Cartledgehayes knows well how to craft a poem. Her work is rich in compelling detail and layers of meaning, sophisticated in structure, and complex in tone. And her writing is fresh. You will not be bumping into old ideas or stale phrases here!

Semiswseetness and Light is divided into five sections. The first and last contain poems written since 2000, the year Carledgehayes’s husband died. She describes those sections in her introduction as reflecting “the gradual return of joy to my life.” The middle sections are from the 1980s and 1990s and are related to her concerns and interests of those years—particularly women’s issues and her understanding of the often mistreated women of the Bible. Knowing this organization helps the reader place the poems in their rightful context.
Cartledgehayes’s language is direct and conversational; you know where you are right away (“Would you agree that God/is at least as good/as my mother?”—from “Surely God”). This directness, however, takes on different tones. She can be humorous, tart, and sassy:

I won’t be listening to harps
in heaven. I once attended
a harp concert, and that
was enough of that.
(from “But There Is an Accordion”)

Or sad and poignant:

Like autumn leaves they dropped,
those early itinerant wives.
They were buried beneath mountains,
beside still waters, beyond the big river
on the preaching journey west.
(from “Lost Souls”)

Or stark and shocking:

Of course we raped her.
That’s our custom.
(from “Etiquette”)

The forms of the poems range from a single stanza of five lines to a five-part poem of over 130 lines. All are written in free verse, and differences in line length and stanza length reflect the content and tone of each poem. There are love poems, protest poems, theological poems, poems about biblical characters, hilarious poems, ironic poems. Images can be as simple as

I prize store-bought sweaters,
straight carrots, and dahlias
the size of dinner plates . . .
(from “Retroactive Resurrection”)

or as complex as

The miniature jellyfish I saw
at the aquarium
floating pyrotechnically
under black light.
(from “Not Paprika”)

Cartledgehayes’s writing can be lyrical and tender as well. The final stanza of her long poem, “The End of the Decade for Women, 1985,” conveys deep longings through gentle but powerful rhythms and images:

Later, when the dancing was done,
Sweet Honey in the Rock was done,
Singers, drummers, chanters done,
an Aboriginal woman from Australia sang.
Voices rose all around me, uniting
in her melody. I didn’t know the words,
wondered at the hundreds who did
until someone told me there are tribes
not joined by land who yet recognize
each other’s songs, those unrelated
voices lifting, voices claiming peace
as night fell.

The more I read the poems in Semisweetness and Light, the more I find to enjoy and ponder and explore. Occasionally some detail puzzles me, but that just adds to the pleasure. I keep the book where I can see it, not only so I can pick it up and read a poem but also to enjoy the cover.  It features a work of textile art by Carledgehayes,  And the Glory of the Lord Shone All Around. I have the impulse to reach out and touch it every time I see it. It’s deeply satisfying in some lovely way.

I think Semisweetness and Light will delight and move every reader. Its small size makes it easy to carry around, and you will find yourself having a conversation with Cartledgehayes sooner or later. Treat yourself to this box of treasures—and I hope that copies will be available for sale at the 2008 conference in June. Maybe we can sit around some night and talk about the poems. They certainly should have a place at the table.


© 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 31 number 4 Winter (January-March) 2008


Linda Williams
Linda Williams is a retired literature editor who worked for 23 years in educational publishing. Before that she conducted continuing education courses in poetry for 12 years, and she also taught English at a small college. She enjoys tutoring international students in English. Linda has led retreats using poetry and has presented workshops on poetry at several conferences.


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