Unexpected guest

Issue 2021, vol. 75

Review of Safehold: Poems by Ann Hostetler (Dreamseeker Poetry Series, Cascadia Publishing, 2018)

Ann Hostetler’s second book of poetry was published three years ago. There is a poem about the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (“Today the blue sky is empty of clouds/and planes. … Not one of the lights in this sky/winks or slowly travels across the horizon.”). There is a poem dedicated to a young mother, Marwa El-Sherbini, who died in Dresden in 2009 (“Pregnant. Murdered in front of her husband and son/by a recently repatriated German Russian who found/her foreign presence offensive …”). There is a set of sonnets for the ten Amish girls of Nickel Mines, Pa., shot by an “English” neighbor in 2006, with five dead (“…his handgun called the roll – Mary,/Lena, Marian, Anna Mae, Naomi Rose.”).

Yet this book could have been written “for such a time as this,” and therein lies the power of good poetry.

The “safehold” of the title is the love of family, the one the writer was born into and the one she created with her husband (“I am … /eldest of three, mother of four, grandmother/of two, wife of one. …”); the care of old friends (“Last time we hiked together you brought binoculars,/showed me a red-breasted nuthatch, a hermit thrush.”) and newer ones; the grace of forgiveness (“This giver’s knock brings blessing, not alarm,/an offering to those who’ve lost in kind,” from the Nickel Mines sonnets); the comfort of heritage (“…the only inheritance that matters, love/shared between and among us,/alive in our breath.”). Or, as the title poem, one of the last written, says, it’s the writer’s own art: “Like Noah, I build an ark,/gathering what I love inside – /the frail coracle/of words.”

But don’t be mistaken in thinking “safehold” is something warm and comforting – or at least, not only that. There is grief for parents who age and die (“I entered his room for the last time,/to see only a shell – broken – …”; “…baritone solo and bassoon mingling with the last of Mother’s presence in the emptied apartment.”). There is the mystery of sorrow when parenting can’t protect children (“Who taught her that pain validates?”; “…I have no words for the love/crushed back inside my chest.”). There is the terrible aftermath of violence, whether a mass shooting (“We long for crumbs of consolation/from what survivors remember or will tell/of the unspeakable…”) or the long legacy of war’s literal inferno (“I recall pictures/of rubble. Slaughterhouse Five. The Iron Curtain.”).

And yet.

Here we are, halfway through 2021, trying – or not – to recall the last year-plus of living in a global pandemic and living through (if we are in the United States) a bitterly contentious presidential election with scars yet unhealed. Counting the cost of all that was lost.

Safehold is a reminder (as I suspect was a good part of the intent) that there are things bigger, and ultimately stronger, than the reign of one “charismatic con man,” the loss of parents and struggles of children, the terror of gun violence, even a firebombed city or buildings brought down by hijacked commercial airliners. Or a global pandemic. Things like love, friendship, story and history, fresh-plucked raspberries and ripe tomatoes, grace.

“Forgiveness is the unexpected guest,” Hostetler writes in the final sonnet for the girls of Nickel Mines. And later: “Polished by forgiveness, our failures/are the only possible windows/through which to truly see.” When looking for that “safehold,” don’t forget to forgive yourself.