Oyster Boy Review 14  
  Winter 2001
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'A Certain Light' by Debra Kaufman

Robert West

A Certain Light is Debra Kaufman's first full-length poetry collection. Although she is originally from the midwest, Kaufman now lives in North Carolina, and her poems are in some ways typical of much contemporary southern poetry. For instance, she is essentially a narrative poet: her best poems are typically stories or character sketches. Also, many poems are about members of her family; she writes especially about the women, including her mother, aunts, and grandmothers. Unlike many southerners, however, she seems to have little interest in the auditory aspects of versification: her poems subscribe to no system of prosody, and only rarely adopt such techniques as alliteration and rhyme.

Yet if these poems usually sound like prose, one should note that they sound like deft prose. Kaufman knows just how to pace her sentences as she tells a tale or limns a character; furthermore, she knows how to employ a line break to dramatic (and humorous) effect. "Aunt Fran" shows her at her best. Consider these lines:

        Sometimes she'd bring chocolates or a painting

she'd just finished and talk about Paris and New York
    like she'd been there.
        She'd say things like The eye is over Ohio,

and everyone would look into their coffee cups
    or whiskey glasses to see
        if any wisdom had settled there.

The postponement of "like she'd been there" is exquisite, as is the double space following Aunt Fran's dumbfounding announcement—not to mention the placement of "settled there" at both sentence's and tercet's end.

At times Kaufman demonstrates a kind of inventiveness that recalls the poetry of Lisel Mueller. One example is the conceit of "At Aunt Emma's Table," where a set of silverware takes on the characteristics of a family; another is "After Reading 'Rumpelstiltskin' to My Son," Kaufman's deconstruction of that troubling fairy tale.

A Certain Light is imaginative, humane, and often compelling—a distinguished first book.