“Work is Love Made Visible” by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish tells a story like an old photo album recalls memories past.
It took Mish, an Oklahoma native, twenty years before she came back home to get her PhD in American literature and write this book of poetry and family photographs. It took years of hard traveling, heartbreak, hardship, love and introspection to produce this wonderfully touching and honest look at herself, and by extension, Oklahoma people.
Her writing exemplifies the Oklahoma character of resilience, strife, determination and hard work. Her language is articulate and simplistic at the same time. For instance, in “Rosasharn Reports from California in the 21st Century,” a poem from the point of view of the fictional character Rose of Sharon from the John Steinbeck classic “The Grapes of Wrath,” Mish bemoans the loss of language in literature, or even life in general: “Anyway, they say I’m quite the character,” Mish writes as Rose of Sharon, “Even though Mr. Steinbeck’s “virile, realist style” / is “no longer viable.” Wouldn’t you just know it? / Plain talk is out of fashion.”
Family is a heavy influence in “Work is Love Made Visible.” Poems championing her grandparents and great grandparents, all from Oklahoma, interweave among stories of personal strife and self-reflection. “Great granny Iness had eleven children, my grandpa / One of nine who lived long enough to grow up,” she writes in the poem “A Woman’s Inheritance,” a poetic history of the women in her family, “She gave me a strong body and a stubborn will / Her mother, Mary Ella, was less than five foot tall / but she once knocked her drunken, belligerent husband / Upside the head with a cast iron skillet for raising a hand to her / He quit drinking after that / I want to believe I have her spunk.”
The title poem, “Work is Love Made Visible,” is a moving homage to her Grandmother, who worked hard, long hours at a garment factory to sew clothes for her grandchildren. “Even now, I can recite every article of granny’s handiwork,” Mish writes, “proclaim the delight of something made just for me / Sing the alchemy of love and labor / testify that after working all day, day after day / my granny would sit at her sewing machine / and attire me in vestments of love.” Next to the poem is a picture of her grandmother, circa 1940, which evokes powerful emotions of family connections, respect and admiration. You can feel her sentiment.
Other poems praise legacy and the importance of Oklahoma connections. For instance, “Ashes and Dust,” a poem about gardening, touts, “Yet for five generations my family’s strong hands / have crumbled red dirt clods, sown precious seeds / and pulled weeds until our fingers ached.”
“For My Brother,” is a deeply sad poem juxtaposing the actual obituary of her brother, titled “What I Wrote,” with a longer, brutally honest poem called “What I Didn’t Write,” which mourns the tribulations of her brother’s history with alcohol abuse.
“Work is Love Made Visible” does a fantastic job of juxtaposing hard moments and somber reflection with positive imagery of home and the importance of family, if not for the purpose of garnering support and love, at least to situate herself and to discover more about who she is and where she comes from. Interwoven through these themes are images of Oklahoma and resilience, a biting intellectualism and a “plain talk” that is most definitely not out of fashion.