Richard Krawiec
Women Who Loved Me Despite

Press 53
ISBN: 978-1-941209-21-9

Reviewer: Lynn Levin

          The deeper I read into Richard Krawiec’s new poetry collection Women Who Loved Me Despite, the more I appreciated Krawiec’s ability to counterpoint the gentleness and hesitancy of the voices behind the poems with the toughness and meanness of the world. Many of these emotionally gripping and often violent poems deal with desperate situations, injustice, regret, and helplessness. Still, compassion and candor accompany the onslaughts. Many of Krawiec’s poems, almost all of which are written in the first person, deal with guilt and redemption, a redemption that, at best, can only be momentarily obtained. Reflecting on the poems, I return time and again to their strong moral voice.

          The title of the book suggests that this is a collection of poems about betrayed or otherwise faulty relationships with women. This is true of many, though not all, of the poems. Among the many outstanding selections is the title poem. Here, a young speaker, recalling high school days, decries his own inability to intervene and save young female friends who were the victims of incest. Deploying metaphoric language, he slides “into the crawlspace/ to hide, breath held,” and fails to come to the girls’ defense. Other poems speak through nature. In “Guilt,” rain pours down as an absolving blessing that some receive, that others never do. The shattering “the girl in the room” addresses both abominations and human resilience as it describes the gang rape of a teenage girl. In time, the girl recovers and learns to love despite all that she has been through. The preposition “despite” links failures with repair and enduring affection; it also links trauma with survival.

          There is a great deal of violence in these poems and a many references to hangings, nooses, and ropes. Some of these references relate to suicides and a would-be murder, others refer to a life held back, then liberated. In “Yes,” the speaker is “weary of the shuffle-tread    thick rope/ chafing my neck as I circled the stake    I stopped/ slid off the noose    struck out towards the rising moon.” This is a poem of freedom and change. But a number of others confront despair. In the poem “Losing My Life,” the speaker recalls friends who took their own lives and a manipulative girlfriend (at least I saw her as manipulative) who threatens suicide in order to reel the speaker back. Return he does, in one of the many turns, changes, and reversals that move through the poems.

          My two favorite poems in the book are also the ones I found most harrowing. “The Condemned Man Remembers Getting Ready for Prison” deals with a man’s desperate love for his dog. Unwilling to leave his beloved pet, a man about to be taken to jail by the cops is allowed to return to his home. He pretends to take a shower while he actually prepares to hang his dog. Better, he imagines, to dispatch the cherished and loving pet than allow each to live without the other. “Butch let me snug/ the rope to his neck/ ...the water beat down/ on his spotted body/ ...he didn’t start kicking/ till i jerked him up….” Overcome with guilt at the dog’s suffering, the man unties the dog who “whimpered/ and licked [his] hand.” It is hard to let go of this poem. So many questions linger in my mind after the final line. What happens to Butch after his master goes to jail? Is Butch the only love in the convict’s life? How does the man cope with separation from his dog? The pathos wrenches the heart.

          The other gut-wrencher is “Organ Harvesters.” Here the members of a medical team appear all too eager to end the life of a fatally injured youth who had elected to be an organ donor. The poem, one of several written in lower-case letters, begins:

after the third transfusion
leaked out the sieves
of her son’s wounds
his blood washed
free of the coagulants
needed to thicken and staunch,
the organ harvesters
swarmed the mother
demanding the right to save
someone else

          The poem concludes with the mother’s anger and grief, as the medical team wishes to glean what she had sown, “from a field never again to be/ turned over, planted,/ allowed to ripen.” I am all in favor of organ donorship, but this poem shows another side of the story.

          The poet has a deep and specific knowledge of the flora and fauna of the American mid-South; native birds and trees pleasingly play a role in many of the poems, both in pieces of straight description and as moral images. In “I Dream of an Owl,” the poet observes much from his backyard. He sees a “flash/ of squirrel arched beneath the Chinese temple” just as an owl swoops to “pierce the yellow wall of glowing trees.” Meanwhile vultures circle. Later the poem reverses its message, offering changed perspectives of those close to the speaker. “Each woman—sister, friend, lover, wife—/ sees different meanings in my life.” The changes and reversals continue throughout the poem, which ends with images of art from an Indian fortress that depicts an “owl-protector” and a “squirrel-thief.” Roles are inverted. The poet, in his dream, finds a way to spare the rodent from the raptor.

          I do think that some of the poems go on a line or two longer than they have to, but that is a minor quibble as the poems are serious and memorable for Krawiec’s moral positions and courage to take on important subjects and situations. This is a collection that lingers in the mind, a book of riveting words.

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