Peculiar Honors by Sharon Cumberland



ISBN 978-0930773-991


Peculiar Honors is a collection of poems about how things appear to be one way, then surprise us by being something else. There is an alternative reality that becomes visible only through the lens of poetry. What seems to be an egg, or a crossing signal, or a child sitting in a shopping cart turns out to be a portal into the unexpected. These poems are about things that seem dire or misconceived—a nephew's death, a detour into the wrong profession—but which are redeemed through reconstruction in poetry. Organized around quotes from Isaac Watts, the poems tackle big questions and small oddities with equal force, starting with Watts' prayer to "Let every creature rise and bring/peculiar honors to our King." Each poem is a "peculiar honor" — a look through the ordinary to those strange, difficult, and triumphant things that poetry reveals.

Sharon Cumberland was born in Schenectady, New York. Her peregrinations through universities, jobs, psychotherapy, and an Episcopalian religious order led her to poetry. She has traveled in the United States and abroad, and lived for a time in Rome, Italy where she developed a love of art, architecture, and opera. In New York City she had careers in arts management and education. Currently she is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Seattle University.


Reviews

"A fine assortment, very much recommended reading."

     The Midwest Book Review

“Cumberland…uses deft language and witty imagery to illuminate many of these poems—from the reckless innocence of a child who flings her stuffed animal about in “Girl,” to the wink-wink observations in “Tacoma Screw” and “On the Burke Gilman Trail.”

 “But there’s a deeper, side too. As a young woman, Cumberland spent time in a closed religious community, and this cloistered time informs some of her poems, from “Prayer” and “Habit” to the rebellious “Smoke Offering.”

 “Most profoundly, this collection is dedicated to the memory of Cumberland’s nephew, who died of cancer almost thirty years ago at the age of six. There are several pieces in this book that clang with the dolor and helpless rage of an aunt unable to protect her beloved blood kin.

 “One poem offers special solace, however. “Vista Point” suggests that we may find comfort, if not beacons of hope, even when we feel most alone.”

   —Barbara Lloyd McMichael, Bellingham Herald 04/16/12

"In this enticingly readable collection, Sharon Cumberland (The Arithmetic of Mourning) offers readers the chance to see through another’s eyes with startling clarity, with poetry stripped of pretense and obscure imagery. As “Ars Poetica,” one of the first poems in the book, posits, if poetry can allow the reader to share a moment of someone else’s life, it should not be expected to further justify its existence with irony or morals.

Cumberland’s style and wit at times evoke Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially when describing a beach visit. She deftly dissects common sights and imbues them with new meaning, changing children riding in shopping carts into aliens native to the consumerist climate of the grocery store. Elsewhere, she describes a dream of encountering a wardrobe full of the clothes her mother wore before age took her sanity, a dream that is able to reunite her through sensory memory with a time when her mother was the all-powerful center of her childhood universe. While much of her subject matter is personal, Cumberland also invokes the lives of historic figures like Jesus Christ, reimagining the religious icon as a flesh-and-blood person with human emotions and an enormous destiny.

 Several poems describe Cumberland’s grief over losing her five-year-old nephew to cancer. While the depth of her pain is piercing, the fact that she can so clearly express such a deep and broad loss in so few words is testament to her great talent. This collection will speak movingly to any reader, not just poetry enthusiasts."                                   

— Jaclyn Fulwood, Shelf Awareness,
           University of Oklahoma libraries, November 18, 2011