Sunday, September 30, 2007

Telling Life Stories Through Poetry: A Review

A Review of I Speak of Simple Things, by Donna G. Humphrey (Ampersand, Inc., 2007)

Donna Grace Glenn Humphrey, a native of Kansas, probably came to the world's attention only once, on February 28, 2005, at age 89. On that day, Mrs. Humphrey, mother of a federal judge in Chicago, became a tragic murder victim, along with the judge's husband.

This year, Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Schmich revealed, in a fascinating article, that Donna Humphrey had written poetry for most of her life, but while she shared some of it with family and friends, most of it was tucked into drawers and closets where family members found it only after her death. Fortunately, her daughters, Joan Humphrey Lefkow and Judith Humphrey Smith, joined Suzanne Isaacs of Chicago's Ampersand, Inc. to publish privately these revealing fragments of a woman's life.

Columnist Schmich calls the poems' style "plain and lyrical," and they probably do not rank among the world's greatest poetry. However, as a revealing record of a woman's life, these poems, "dedicated to the strong and noble women of the prairie," are priceless.

The book begins with "If I Were a Poet." It reads, in part:

"If I were a poet / I could speak my thoughts in language / All sublime and terrible . . . . But I, I only know of simple things / Heart-stabbing winter sunsets, / The unexpected thrust of pain / That tells me life is fragile . . . . My thoughts are not profound / I only speak of simple things."

In short poems gathered by the editors into "The Natural World," "The Inner World," "Time," "Home," "Longing," "Family," "The World Outside," and "Faith and Prayer," Donna Humphrey did, indeed, speak of the "simple things" that made up the lives of the ordinary women of her time.

Some of the poems reflect concerns about aging: "A book unopened in her lap, she rocks / And counts her gold in simple things / The heart remembers." In "Old Woman," she sees herself as an abandoned house. "I wait the Wrecker's ball / When with a sigh / I fall and leave a space / For building." "The Widows" begins, "We are everywhere / We with our perms / Our little purses / Our careful steps / Supported by our walkers / Or our canes. / We are the Survivors . . . "

Donna Humphrey, farm wife, mother, general store proprietor, office worker, and hospital assistant controller, lived for nearly 30 years as a widow. According to the book's introduction, she suffered from chronic depression. Still, "Through her faith, determination, and the love and responsibility she felt for her children, she thrived." She survived difficult times, and she lives on in her poetry.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

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