Title: Owning the Moon
Author: Linda Sillitoe
Publisher: Signature Books
Year of Publication: 2017
Number of Pages: 85
Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters
There are many things to say about this posthumous collection of Linda Sillitoe’s poetry.
About Linda herself: She died in 2010, at the age of 61, of chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), but Sillitoe was a tireless writer for social change all her life, a significant Utah writer. She produced three important nonfiction works (most famously Salamander, the story of the Mark Hoffmann forgeries and murders, co-authored with Allen Roberts); three novels and a short story collection; and one other collection of poetry. This list is incomplete, of course. Her articles and editing work won Pulitzer nominations and other prestigious awards. She was published nationally, her influence widespread. She wrote Utah history, advocated for women and Native Americans and other causes, and joined Sonia Johnson and others as icons of important movements in the long, fraught history of LDS intellectual and social change. She was married to John Sillito (the different spellings were conscious), the mother of three children, a Mormon for a long while, a protesting excommunicant for a time as well. For these reasons alone, this is an important book.
About the title: The left-hand pages of the book are a flip-show of the phases of the moon. Look down in the bottom corner and see. At the back of the book are “The phases of Linda’s life,” captions for the photographs that dot the pages, sweet black-and-whites from Linda’s childhood through her domestic and professional years. It’s lovely to see the ecstatic young version of the serious heartful person who created these poems. Not only the title but also the design capitalizes on the theme of cycles, of waxing and waning, of growth and decay.
About the book itself: It’s beautifully produced. Its cover is a collaged cityscape under a rising moon. Its size is perfect for holding in the hand, its fonts eye-friendly, its white spaces generous. One wants to give it to one’s poetry-reading friends for its visual aesthetic alone.
About the organization: The collection is divided into four sections. “To own, we believe what we see,” the first is titled—a line from a poem in the final section. There are sixteen poems in this first grouping, eleven in the second, which declares, “Love is what it is, not what it says.” “Do not shuttle corpse dust to infect the moon” contains ten poems; and the last section, heart-tuggingly headed “Tonight, the moon’s as near and far as you,” contains sixteen again. I don’t believe this is a posthumous chiasmus decided by an outside editor. It’s not a random sequence. The book is dedicated “To all those who traveled the mountains of Utah and the deserts of Arizona with me,” and I believe Sillitoe organized the book herself before she died. (I welcome accurate information about this!) At least several of the poems had seen publication already. The shaping is personal and deliberate.
About the poems themselves: They are lovely. I’m especially impressed by the formal ones. “Saturday Supper” (4) doesn’t look like a sonnet, but it is, a perfectly metered and rhymed image of a young mother courageously piloting her seven (?) children all week long. “Slant Sonnet for Melissa” (14) does what a slant sonnet must do—rhymes not quite perfectly, turns not at the eighth or twelfth line but somewhere between, gives us a mother’s love and a daughter’s independence all at once. You have to read carefully to find the patterns in “Fifteen months” (76) but they are there, as in most of the poems throughout the collection—in repetitions, cumulative images, short narrative arcs, apt and surprising metaphors.
Not just form, but theme helps configure this collection. Grief—for lost people, lost time, a lost father. Friendships, difficult but desirable. The moon, or moons (“the Wait-Until-I-Come Moon/of the Kiowa…//the Moon-of-Snow-Blindness/ or the Moon-When-the-Cold-Makes-Trees-Crack”) (46). Illness, and faraway healing. The shock of 9/11. These are the poems of a wise and luminous womansoul, an acute observer whose relationships fill the center of her being.
Much more could be said. I hope there are scholars, readers and writers, who will compose careful essays about the poems in Owning the Moon and the messages in Sillitoe’s other books. Let me end this review with a teaser, the last few lines of “Oasis” (77), an urgent invitation to read the entire collection:
Everything pools and settles.
And then the pond of blood becomes water,
cold and real; we kneel at its edge to drink.