“When We Wake in the Night,” by Tami Haaland. WordTech Editions, Cincinnati. Softbound, 93 pages.
“When We Wake in the Night,” Tami Haaland’s new book of poetry, is such a tiny thing. So why does it weigh so heavily on me?
I have heard Ms. Haaland, an English professor at Montana State University Billings, read from her work. I even saw a whole production of her poetry put together by local artist and promoter Ian Elliott. But encountering a whole book, even one weighing in at a slender 93 pages (plus a gorgeous cover by Jean Albus), with many pages far less than full, was a bit overwhelming. These little poems pack an awfully large punch.
If you think poems stopped being good when they quit rhyming, then you might find this volume worth a look. These are real poems, deceptively simple but filled with hard and sometimes unpleasant truths.
Ms. Haaland has a knack for carving to the bones of ordinary life: a kids’ baseball game, a friend who gets trapped on a train as she heads to the McCormick Café, fights between children, a catalog filled with models. The plain language, the familiar settings, the quiet flow of the pen all seem to promise something easy and comfortable.
But very little here is what it seems. With the turn of a phrase or a fresh image, she repeatedly suggests deeper, often darker, themes. Often, the themes are subtle, even obscure, but occasionally one hits like a two-by-four.
One whole section, “Inquest,” works that way, a meditation on death that ends with this stunning three-line poem:
I look at his picture.
Don’t die, I say. The face
looks back. Don’t.
These poems will not let you be done with them. Read them once and you may think, I get it. You might want to devote a few brain cells to file them away, like you might with “Casey at the Bat.”
But there is a troubling sense that you really didn’t get it. Something more is there, between the lines, beneath the surface. You have to go back, if only to look for what you missed. You may find it hard to stop.
This little book bears more freight than a lot of fat novels. It’s worth a read, or several.