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In Time and Peonies, Rosie King grows poems like gardens

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Reading Rosie King’s second book of poetry, Time and Peonies, feels a little bit like spying on the poet herself. After a few pages, it seems clear that these poems spring directly from her life: her day-to-day, her family, her feelings, her history. After a few more, her world widens and details fill in, one by one and line by line. At this point, you begin to like her, to grab at the details from each poem and stanza that make up who she is and what her days look like, and puzzle them together. But it’s not like reading her diary or a pile of her old letters. It’s more like walking through the quiet rooms of her house when she’s away, running your thumb across the spines of the books in her library, or sitting in her garden (which seems nothing less than magical, by the way).

The author page at the back of the thin volume tells us the basics: King was born in Saginaw, Michigan, attended Wellesley College in the 1960s, and settled in Santa Cruz after she earned her doctorate in literature. It also shows her picture: glancing over her shoulder casual in what looks like a sweatshirt, no makeup, and a head of bright, mussed curls.

The poems tell you much more: of her little beach house near Santa Cruz, where she spends time in her garden and tending to her fruit trees. Of her parents, both back when they were young (and before she was born) and when they are elderly and frail and need help. Of her past lovers and husband, of the children she never had and the people she loves.

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Each poem feels like a micro-memoir. Tiny beautiful stories from King’s life, distilled down to a few dozen vital words and images, leaving the reader feeling a gut punch of emotion in just 20 or 30 lines. Some, like “And of Course You Know About Your Dad,” which tells the story of her father’s first marriage, reach into families histories. Others, like “Again,” capture single moments in ordinary days: like looking up from garden weeding to watch two boys walking down the street, bouncing a dirty tennis ball between them. All conjure small, real moments with sparse economy, even for poetry, like this one from the beginning of “Cherry-Fire” about playing with a childhood friend:

Out in the bushes

secrets were big as caves.

We made a ring of stones,

scorched potatoes, ate them black,

and smudged the library book on

how babies got born,

our fingerprints on every page.

We buried it in leaves, under snow

all winter: our pact.

The language is perfectly curated (you can see quickly how King probably excels both in the garden and on the page), each word wonderfully specific without ever wandering into pretension, doing huge amounts of work, creating vivid images and scenes with just a few pecks of the keyboard.

Many of the poems are about loss. Half a dozen are dedicated to and about recently departed friends and family members. The most powerful, “After This,” is about a high school classmate she failed to speak with at their 55th reunion, though he was recently widowed and looked like he needed comfort. After she reads that he’s died in a newsletter, he visits her in a dream.

While so many poems are about mourning and the passage of time, all are filled with a quiet joy–something less like nostalgia and more like the appreciation of the present moment, even if it’s tinged with loss. A soft, feminine, modern-day zen. A few lines in the poem “Again” seem to summarize King’s ongoing mission on the page: “And I’m filled with courage again/with a crush of old sweetness/at how giving a moment can be as it vanishes.”

These giving moments tumble one after another throughout the book, illuminating King’s reflective, mindful beachside life, inside and out. They feel like her rooms, or even more like her possessions, left in a trail for readers to follow. These aren’t pieces where you read one poem before you go to bed, or one upon waking, like a small injection of literature into your day. This is a work to read like a memoir, or even to read like sliding into a life being lived, right now, at this very moment.

Rosie King reads from her poems at Fact & Fiction Tue., Nov. 21, at 7 PM.

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