Memory has loomed as an important component of poetry dating to Horace, who’s considered the first autobiographical writer. Without it, verse loses its sense of personal connection, the ties that bind life events to something beyond wordy abstraction. Writing about the self both preserves and enriches what’s important.
In her debut full-length collection, Ordinary Tasks (MadBooks), local writer Marilyn Marsh Noll embraces an ethos of rich imagery coupled with straightforward language to explore a life well-lived. A member of the Madwomen in the Attic Workshops at Carlow University, Noll earned a master’s degree from American University at 61 and worked as a Congressional staffer for 20 years. But it’s her memories as a wife, daughter, mother and friend that define the book’s very readable 73 pages.
The world Ordinary Tasks inhabits is a physical place. In “Ella’s Cakes,” Noll writes, “I’m on my lunch break / at my 1950 summer job. / Round and sunny Ella sings / in the bakery down the hall / swirling globs of frosting / in blues and pinks and yellows /… We waitresses hunch / around the battered table / in our crowded upstairs lunchroom / eating the cheapest dinners / on the menu.” The imagery coalesces into the reality of service that hasn’t changed in a type of work many know too well.
Noll continues in this descriptive vein in “No One at Home: March 1986,” writing of the father phoning “from the hospital to say your last goodbye.” She fills the remaining lines with memories of “that old musket over the mantel / … your heavy glass ashtray; the cigar smoke reeking through / the house and yellowing the curtains … / I can almost hear your voice the way it sounded on tape.” The work here points not only to the impermanence of life but to the impermeability of remembrance, reading like a litany for what the dead leave behind for those who cared to notice.
While more than one poem focuses unnecessarily on dreams, it’s the real that plays as most effective, as in “Chicken Killers”: “My father was a gentle man. / During World War II / in the era of Victory Gardens / he killed his first chicken … / my father’s ashen face / when he returned with bloody hands.” The grounded writing here, and in poems like “Tended Blue,” and “Returning Home,” will leave readers appreciating what it means to take notice of all life has to offer.