Described as a "sonnet novella" by its publisher, More Sonnets from the Portuguese is the love story of a middle-aged woman and her married ex-lover from college. In the very first sonnet, entitled "I am a Sensible Woman," the protagonist sums herself up perfectly:
I--Zelia Nunes--sensibly married
only once. Forty-five, no longer young.
Husband dead, four children, mortgaged, harried,
Holy obligations met, even sung.
The title is from 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's classic, Sonnets from the Portuguese (which I've read and loved, for many years). This, too, is a beautiful sonnet sequence, adeptly written. In More Sonnets from the Portuguese, author Janet Eldred adroitly uses a centuries-old poetic form
and brings it into the 21st century. She addresses modern-day issues such as infidelity, religious guilt, reproductive rights, the environment, aging, technology.
Zelia also references Facebook and Twitter, which makes sense because the bulk of the affair is conducted via e-mail. In "After Years," Zelia says, "Your e-mail before me, my body sings/the reply, One doesn't forget such things."
In another sonnet, she says, "I am officially a Kindle/girl...You pull me to you. You tempt me to stray--/Yes, good Lord help me, I like you that way." In yet another sonnet, she states, "You are the love of my life."
The poems feature beautiful imagery that is rich, sensual, complex. Once Zelia describes the California landscape as covered with "almond trees that blossomed like moonlight,/perfumed crops picked by bodies until broken." Her family ancestry is Azorean (from islands off the coast of Portugal). As depicted, the details feel intimate, fully developed.
I preferred the first half of this sequence, perhaps because in those sonnets the love was new and unexpected. In the second half, Zelia's mood changes from moment to moment, veering from excited and hopeful to despondent, all dependent on the vicissitudes of the relationship (after all, he has a wife!). Also, she becomes more philosophical as she grapples with her guilt and religion.
That said, I liked and enjoyed reading all the poems.
In her acknowledgments, Professor Eldred states that More Sonnets from the Portuguese began as a work of fiction, but that in poetry she found she could better tell Zelia's story. By doing so, she breaks new literary ground. Hence, the term "sonnet novella."
At this point, I must mention the stunningly beautiful cover art: a painting of a cobalt-blue peahen on a window sill. This watercolor, it turns out, is by the author herself.
Beautiful poems and beautiful art. Read these poems in honor of National Poetry Month or just because it's spring!
--Yolanda A. Reid