Review of Ann E. Wallace’s Counting By Sevens
If you are a parent, a patient, or a death-defier, you will see yourself in Wallace’s poignant words. Reading Ann Wallace’s collection of poetry, Counting By Sevens, I found myself surprised by how much weight a book this light could hold. Deeply personal and bold, Wallac’s poetry explores the darkness in America and in her own life. I snuck away from my children to read a poem or two at a time and found myself breathlessly immersed in her words, finding themes and topics that resonated with my own struggle as a human and a mother. In the final poem of the second section, “The World So Still,” Wallace writes about a childhood snowstorm in 1978 and the snow cave her siblings built. “I was the smallest and least / welcome, so I waited to explore.” She explains her desire to find another snowstorm “deep enough to contain me.” With spunk, resilience and nostalgia, Wallace creates a place in Counting By Sevens for her readers “to climb inside and find sanctuary.”
Counting By Sevens opens with a section titled “America, Another Day.” In this part of her book, Wallace writes of school shootings, family separations at the border, racism, sexism, and cancer. The first poem, “Valentine’s, Another Day,” describes how school shootings have permanently altered the way school is viewed. “I have a favorite classroom, / with a solid door, and no windows, / like a dungeon…” Wallace continues to explore how trauma occurs daily, even when no shootings occur. “But this is another day / in America, and the gunshots, / and the whimpers / and the wails, though / today they are not here, / they do not stop.” After this poem follow two more that delve deeper into the topic of shootings in America. In “The Weight of Numbers,” Wallace remembers Sandy Hook as “a grief that challenges us to wade into it.”
One of the section’s most poignant poems, “Awash,” draws comparisons between the compassion of killer whales as they care for a bereaved mother orca and the mothers of South America who experience the loss of children at the border. “She swims alone, amid the lost mothers, / in their pod of manmade grief.” This exploration of lost children continues in “Full of Grace” where Wallace writes of a man who “catalogues the remains, and tries in vain / to untangle the endless web of rosaries.”
Wallace includes a few poems about past and current racism in America before sharing several poems that tell of her own #metoo moments. In “Drink of Choice,” she writes of startling behavior of a man at a bar. She writes of female survival tactics in “Anything but.” Wallace also discusses “A girl raised by a father has not / had to think much about the reasons / a family of girls keeps the door closed” in “Closed.” And in the stunning poem“Silence Falling,” she writes of a child who is silent in pain and asks “what muted / pain is / tucked deep / inside / of a girl / who does not / scream when / she falls?”
The second section of the book, “Interlude,” moves into more personal stories filled with nostalgia, loss, motherhood and the continuing theme of resilience. She begins with “Girl of Summer,” opening with the line, “I had forgotten the small town girl of summer in me—“ and continues to write about the child that she used to be, concluding, “But here now, you remind me that I was once / that girl who sailed with no regard for the wind.” She remembers in “Dare” how she “…was not a graceful child, but / scrappy and fearless, satisfied,” and how her daughter now “…knocks her head / climbing, holds the memory alive, / satisfied, and revels in the absurdity / of so much fun causing pain.” She fills this section with more memories of pain mixed inextricably with beauty and life. In “Kay’s Kitchen” she writes of her mother and Kay cleaning her up after berry picking, “smiling at my singular focus / and at a love of berries so fierce / that I could not feel the pain / of each tiny skin prick.”
“Body Rising” is the final section of Counting By Sevens. This is where we are invited to read about Wallace’s personal health. Her bio on the back of the book has already informed us that she is “a long-time survivor of ovarian cancer and…a woman with multiple sclerosis.” Wallace writes about these experiences with such care that the stark details she includes are breathtakingly beautiful even in the pain they describe. She begins the section with “Commencement” where she writes of preparing to graduate while she has cancer: “arrange the mortarboard atop / my head. Clipping it to strands / of hair weak and unreliable…” Wallace continues, writing of undergoing a series of tests at hospitals. In “The Good Patient” she describes how she is praised for her lack of complaints, but she wonders, “…who protects the rock? / Who comforts the good patient?” And she tells us in “Holding” about the person waiting to bring her home after her tests, “As you waited, / my trust in the world / spun loose.”
With these details the reader is held captive, hoping for a positive outcome. And Wallace does end the book with hope. Despite her battle with vertigo, she writes in “Cyclone” of her love of roller coasters and how, still, she “…will pay for a ride that makes spinning / terrifyingly new once more.” And in “Rising” she asks “how much can a body endure? / one small, solitary body,” but by the conclusion she assures the reader that “not small / never solitary / that body endures / that body rises.” By the final poem the reader has been through a journey with Wallace through injustices big and small, but she encourages us throughout by showing us the power of resilience.
In the final poem, “Aglow,” dedicated to a friend she lost to death, Wallace encourages her reader to continue, to persist. “We grew weary of the bodies that betray, / but tired of life interrupted, we lived.” Reading this book, you’ll be blessed by the poet’s observations on life in America as a mother, daughter, sister, and friend.
Counting By Sevens author Ann E. Wallace, PhD lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, where she is raising her teenage daughters and is an English professor at New Jersey City University. In her poetry, she reflects on her experiences with ovarian cancer and multiple sclerosis, motherhood, as well as on the everyday realities of life today in America. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, along with many other journals, including Literary Mama, Mom Egg Review, Wordgathering, Rogue Agent, and Snapdragon. Her collection Counting by Sevens is available from the publisher at mainstreetragbookstore.com. Wallace is online at AnnWallacePhD.com and on Twitter @annwlace409.
MAW contributor Joann Renee Boswell is a teacher, mother, photographer and poet currently living in Camas, WA with her spouse and three children. Before having children, Joann taught and directed high school theatre in Washington state. Joann loves rainy days filled with coffee, books, handholding, moody music, and sci-fi shows. Some places she’s been published include Untold Volumes, Mothers Always Write, For Women Who Roar, The Martian Chronicle andVoiceCatcher. Her first book of poetry, Cosmic Pockets, is expected through Fernwood Press in May 2020. Read more at joannrenee.com.