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Images of love and pain


WHAT IS BEYOND US. By Karen Fish. HarperPerennial. 62 pages. $22.50.

NOT all of the poems in "What Is Beyond Us," the latest book by Karen Fish, are full of pain. But many of them are. Ms. Fish, a teacher at Loyola College and a graduate of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, writes about feelings, and feelings often involve pain. She writes quiet poetry, full of images.

Many of the poems focus on untimely death and what death means to survivors -- especially to a daughter. "You fear for yourself, not your father," the poet says. "You know as you hold him, one arm behind your father's warm neck, the other under his huge knees, that when your father finally dies -- his death will take you from yourself . . ." Other poems look at the poet's family history. There's an especially memorable sequence on Klara, the great-grandmother who came to America from Norway. In the final lines, the poet looks at herself: "I am no different, the great-granddaughter taught to seek the heart's flaw & love the flaw."

The poems are about love remembered, hoped for, experienced. The title poem, "What Is Beyond Us," looks at childbirth. It begins: "Above the meadow of pain, and pins of Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed Susans and tall silver grass, the moon lifts large, white, a lake."

These poems are informed by life and by the wisdom gained through love and loss. "I tried to explain the pleasure of love's exhaustion, losing one's self in the body, the want of the little death," Ms. Fish writes in "The Back Room," a poem about the intimacy of love.

The language sometimes is suggestive of an impressionistic painting. Here's the first poem, "Paradise": "Love is like waking in an unfamiliar room, waking fast and for seconds you don't know yourself. . . You have dissolved -- forgotten your own particulars . . ." The imagery is soft, muted, like watercolor. "The deer moved through the amplification of light, unraveling beyond the lush maze of swamp . . ."

"Irony," one of the best poems in the collection, begins with a hand touching cold metal. The metal is so cold that the bare skin of the hand sticks to it -- just for a second. As the poem progresses, the narrator remembers something that happened on her 14th birthday. She was at the beach, inside a clapboard house, looking out at the ocean. Her father, who had been drinking Scotch, stood at the ocean's edge, then collapsed "like a shadow of a cloud falling over a hillside in summer."

It was twilight. The dunes were empty. "And I was paused at the window watching," the narrator says as she tells the story of her father's death and of her mother's attempt to save him. The pain is almost palpable here, but it doesn't provoke sorrow so much as cleansing.

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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