First published in Underground Window.
Review of Ellaraine Lockie’s Finishing Lines by Charles Ries
Since being bitten (badly) by the muse six years ago, Ellaraine Lockie has received eight Pushcart nominations for her poetry. She accumulated over sixty poetry awards by the end of her first year of actively submitting work. Her first published chapbook entitled Midlife Muse won the Poetry Forum’s annual chapbook contest in 2000. And if that doesn’t get your attention, she has received over two hundred awards in poetry since launching herself into the great poetry super highway—just six years ago. But before you go and take a flying leap off a tall building and break all your pencils you should know that while she is new to poetry, she is not new to writing.
She told me about her jump into poetry, “I previously had written in other genres (and still do)—nonfiction, magazine articles and children’s picture books. Seven years ago I had not read a poem since high school, except for the occasional one I came across in children’s literature. I thought I hated poetry; I thought it had to rhyme. Then one day an old friend sent me some of his poems and wanted my opinion. I liked them, but they didn’t rhyme. So I called my children’s writing mentors for advice. When they told me about free verse, I became obsessed with writing it and with getting it published. This happened at a tough time in my life, and poetry became my salvation. I just jumped in and started writing like crazy, unaware of what other poets were writing. I entered the poems in contests before submitting to editors, knowing that I needed something in cover letters to entice editors into reading my work carefully.” If she needed verification that she was on the right track, she certainly got it.
Lockie’s fourth book of poetry, Finishing Lines, reflects her refined grasp of language and form. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Lockie was a chronic re-writer, for not much in any of these poems seems extraneous. She told me, “I re-write constantly. I re-write until every word is the perfect word for what I want to say at the time. I re-write until I am in love with the poem. My theory is that if I don’t love it, how can I expect anyone else to even like it? I often continue re-writing after a poem has been published. It’s an evolution.” Her careful hand is seen in “The Whipping Woman”: “The woman I hire to daughter my mother / makes bi-weekly visits to the dementia ward / Lies down beside the near-still waters // Accepts the mouth kisses wet with drool / From where gravelly words / dribble down washed-out gullies // Like a whipping boy she bears the brunt / of each face-to-face flagellation / that my rawhide flesh refuses // And for twenty dollars an hour I purchase / like contraposition of a professional mourner / Substitution for services I can’t supply”.
Lockie told me that “Finishing Lines focuses on the endings of things—people, animals, places, relationships, seasons of life; and death is of course the ultimate ending. I’m fascinated with endings. We all deal with small ones on a daily basis—the ending of a day, for instance. Then as we reach middle age, we increasingly have to cope with endings. Things, animate and inanimate alike, just wear out. It seemed to me to be a universal topic for a poetry collection. Many endings create beginnings, and this intrigues me too. I allude to, or straight-out address, this aspect in many of the poems here. It’s a cycle. Thus, the foreword T. S. Elliot quote, “In the beginning is my end.”
This theme is most clearly visible in Lockie’s poem “Liberation”: “I hatch slowly / Each day cracking / lost wonders / Ice cream and oatmeal / for breakfast / English for Chinese neighbors / Lunch with an editor / An afternoon rest home visit / A cat-in-heat night // Hello sunshine! / I’m 54 years old / at Disneyland / With the rest of my life / to take rides / I follow famous sisters / through Tomorrow Land // At 60 Colette opened / a beauty salon in Paris / Jackie O became a book editor // Margaret Mead said / The most creative force in the / world is a menopausal woman / with zest // You haven’t seen anything yet / Margaret Mead”.
If I had anything less than glowing to say about this collection, it would be Lockie’s overuse of alliteration. I knew it wasn’t an accident and wondered if it was a result of her work on children’s books. Here is what she told me: “Alliteration is one of my favorite poetic devices, yes, and my use of it is purposeful. I like the musicality it creates, especially when reading out loud. Also, I often use it to achieve continuity between lines. You’re right though—too much alliteration gives the same kind of sing-songy effect that rhyme can cause. But I guess “too much” differs from reader to reader. I’m careful not to let alliteration get in the way of what I want to say—another possible pitfall the device
shares with rhyme. Whereas picture book writing isn’t responsible for my use of alliteration, it is responsible for the structure of almost all my poetry. In fact, I call this structure “Picture Book Poetry”, and teach a workshop on it.”
Technique is written all over these poems and while my tastes lean toward less developed work, I found Lockie never left me wondering what she was trying to say. Her narratives never became secret code. But beyond using precise language, she also structures her lines with complete intention. She does not use commas and periods, and I asked what she was trying to accomplish by this. Here is what she told me: “I didn’t do away with commas and periods; I never used them in poems (except for prose poems). They defeat my main purpose for writing poetry, and that is to be completely free when I write. Punctuating in poems makes me feel like I’m in poetry prison. Also, putting a period or comma at the end of a line seems a little redundant to me. The line break already signals a slight pause. I use capitalization at the beginning of a line to signify that an extra pause is needed before beginning that line (like for a period), and this makes sense to me. I use a fair number of sentence fragments so if I punctuated prose-properly, my poems would all be littered with commas. Also, writing without end-of-line punctuation forces me to work harder on clarity and syntax. Poetry has never completely followed the rules of prose anyway. Look at all those capital letters at the beginning of each line. I think that’s useless and out of date.”
So indeed (and thank God), Lockie did not just drop out of the heavens unformed and begin to write great poetry; she’d spent a life time acquiring her taste for language. But, still, I wondered how long she’d been writing and where did she get that great name of hers. Perhaps everything is revealed in her reply, “An elderly poet in a black beret whom I met at my first poets’ reading in Berkeley, asked me the same question. I told him that my given name was Ella Loraine, but that my mother’s first name was also Ella and that I didn’t like not having my own name. So in the second grade, I combined my two names into Ellaraine, wrote it on the top of a school assignment and announced to the teacher and classmates that it was to be my name from then on. The Berkeley poet said, “My dear, you are not a beginning poet; you have been a poet since the second grade, because that’s what poets do: they condense in a creative way.”
I would have to agree, and say that while Lockie has been writing ‘poetry’ for a short time, she has been a work in progress her entire life—and it shows.
637 W Hwy 50 #119
O’Fallon, IL 62269
Paper, 47 Pages