Friday, January 19, 2018



Albedo by Kathleen Jesme
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, Idaho, 2014)

Kathleen Jesme is the author of four previous poetry collections including Meridian (Tupelo Press) and The Plum-Stone Game (Ahsahta Press). She is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and is a recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant. Her books have won the Lena Miles Wever Todd and Snowbound Poetry prizes.  She lives in Minnesota.
The title of the book, albedo, is a technical term for whiteness – and it refers to the ratio of light reflected by an object, such as the surface of a planet, to that received. Jesme hints at its definition in the opening poem, The Mythology We Have Now, when she writes

The measure of reflectivity          of a body
depends on the frequency
of light and its angle of incidence

and later, in the same poem, Jesme mentions the word itself:

A pine forest in winter has among the lowest albedo
of any land environment
this is due partly
to the color of the pines
and partly to multiple scattering of sunlight within the trees.

The cover design, a beautiful photograph of the slim, white trunks of closely planted birch trees provides the perfect image for the book.

The season is winter and it is played out against the backdrop of a father’s death. Light, darkness and shadow permeate this collection. They are to be found in open windows and black shutters, black and white piano keys, birds garbed in black, snow blindness and the dark patterns of animals running through snow.  Snow is present from the start. It is the very first word that opens the collection. Trees are ever present also. It maybe that these are a manifestation of the trees that Jesme sees from the windows of her log house. In the Author’s Statement and Biography published by Ahsahta Press, she states that “the trees were planted about 20 years ago. They are now 35 feet tall, but still pliant in the wind.” A faithful dog, maybe more than one faithful dog, runs through these poems, as does time, clouds, birds and the weather. Human activity is almost completely absent.

The collection is divided into three parts which make up a coherent whole. The first section, which carries the title of the book, comprises two long poems which have at their core mythology, alchemy, trickery and fairy-tale. According to Jesme, the first section of the book was initially inspired by reading she was doing about the German physician Anton Mesmer. Jesme says “it is hard to say whether Mesmer was a great psychologist or a complete charlatan. Both, actually. He was a trickster and a transformative character on the liminal edge of the new psychology of the unconscious who discovered that people could be ‘mesmerized’ – hypnotized – to reveal the depths of the inner world and also made to act in ways they  would not when fully conscious. This [first] sequence also reflects the ideas of the alchemists, who were involved in psychological transformation long before Freud and Jung came along.”

The middle section, which is headed Ordinary Work, contains 20 short, elliptical poems that continue to employ much of the imagery that appears in the first section of the book but on a more personal level. In this extended elegy for the speaker’s father’s death, poems such as The Place Where Something Has Been convey a keen sense of absence. The exquisitely crafted poem Collectively, short enough to quote in full, illustrates the meditative aspect that Jesme brings to her writing:

Planes go over in smears of sound:
leaves click down through trees

centre the day
let it fall into
its crevice

and the night flow evenly
on either side

A plane is something else which comes and goes through her poems. It is the plane that is present in the preceding section, the two-seater Piper Cub that her father flew into the wilderness of winter and it is also the one that is present in Map Of The Floating World. Jesme says “when I was very young, I would stand on the shore of the Rainy River and watch my father disappear into the sky in a big yellow bird with a red stripe, and I thought he was magic. I began this book as a reflection on how people and things come and go, altering continuously in our perception, and how we use language to come to terms with those experiences…..the father becoming absent, returning again in a tree and in a memory.”

The poem My Father Calling Us Up is much less abstract than some of the others in this section and provides us with a beautiful cameo of a much-cherished memory from childhood.

In The Bell we behold the spectacle of trees shedding their leaves in the Fall and learn of the father’s oneness with the natural world:

My father’s umbilical attachment to the earth
made him
glorious in a small way

as by borrowing we come into being

Jesme says that “language is a bell that can be rung over and over, and only silenced when the overtones finally die – and perhaps they never do, but rather are flung into space and are travelling still through the expanding universe.”

The final section, headed Coastline, contains fourteen poems of varying lengths. One of these poems, Infinite Coastline, references the work of Benoît Mandelbrot – a mathematician whose fractal geometry has helped us to find patterns in the irregularities of the natural world. Time and space frequently inform these poems – the passage of time and the vastness of the universe. With Strings Attached is an extended meditation on time:

…..time has no corners
and always arcs, like electricity, shooting across
gaps and connecting disparate chancels. It spins
on its axis, tilted remarkably
like the Earth, a small planet in an insignificant solar system
in a Medea galaxy.

In the Nonet, nine paragraphs of prose depict through the stark imagery of winter the absence of the loved one. In the second paragraph, distance is measured in terms of a dog and a ball – an animal vanishing and returning, retrieving the ball for its master except that here the dog runs at all times with the ball, he cannot bear to be parted from it.

Transformation, with references to the evolutionary stages of the butterfly, is another theme that is present here. There is hope in these final poems.  In Chrysós Jesme writes:

…..I suppose we may
meet again but I don’t know

but there is still grief:

The gap is wide and deep. I am accustomed
to calling it a black hole although
that is by no means
scientific. In fact it is metaphorical.

At the end of the day, some kind of closure may be glimpsed in this single line from Hard Believing Time:

My faith is in the ground that holds the world in place.

Throughout this collection careful attention is paid to how the poem sits on the page. Spacing within lines, between lines and between stanzas conveys something of the feeling of “white space” or absence.  The sparseness of the writing, especially in the middle section of the book, leaves the reader with ample opportunity to reflect on what has not been said.  There is so much that we do not know and cannot see, so much more to our world. Fractal geometry is only just the start.

This is a powerful testament – a journey into silence and back. There is grief but there is also amazement at the vastness of the universe and all that there is that is still to be discovered. Highly recommended.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, England, 2017).