Updated October 4, 2009: Winner of the Thorpe Menn Annual Literary Excellence Award, co-sponsored by the American Association of University Women and the Kansas City Public Library.
What’s Right About What’s Wrong, a collection of poems, was published by Helicon Nine Editions in August 2008 (ISBN 978-1-884235-40-5).
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Each one is a compact little rock of Texas Gothic, thrown hard. Think Flannery O’Connor in verse, with less God and more rodeo.
Every poem in this collection is a five star, worthy of the explicator’s science and the sensitive reader’s tears. Her poems of grief unavoidable, sustained, or in progress, join those of Emily Dickinson in their strength and assured longevity.
Naomi Shihab Nye:
Donna Trussell’s poems are lean, and brilliant. They swerve and startle, the way life does, but somehow better. What’s Right About What’s Wrong — you’ll turn down corners of pages, copy poems for friends, come back and back again to images so potent and penetrating they feel almost eerie in their stunning beauty.
If Donna Trussell speaks to us “from the fragile net of the living,” she is spoken to by ghosts still animated by “the look of longing.” That’s what’s right about what’s wrong, that equation – life the dividend, death the divisor – “that solves,” Trussell tells us in the title poem, “to an infinite fraction / that can’t be right, / but is.
These poems, passionate and sometimes angry, sting. And though succinct, they grow large in the silences they force us to listen to.
Wonderful. Reads like a 10th book, not a first book. There’s authority and boldness to the poems — assured, confident, no gimmicks. They’re so tight, like little fists.
What’s Right About What’s Wrong cover photo is Namibia Sand House Plate NH17 by Richard Ehrlich.
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BEST BOOKS OF 2008
Melinda Henneberger, contributor:
I want to put in a word for my friend Donna Trussell’s new collection of poems, What’s Right About What’s Wrong. Each one is a compact little rock of Texas Gothic, thrown hard. (Think Flannery O’Connor in verse, with less God and more rodeo.) Even before Trussell was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001—she got the call telling her to report for surgery while watching the Twin Towers fall—her work, as she says, “tended toward death, death, pet death, sex, love, death.” But fierce or yearning, I love these ghosts—like Miss Candace Mayes, who surrendered her place in the last lifeboat off the Titanic to a mother who died years later of guilt, in an asylum where “Her hands would climb the trellis. Her feet were never still.” Of a daughter never conceived who calls, “[G]ive me your darkest winter, it will be spring to me.” And of a poet read posthumously, who can’t help asking, “Who are you? What do you do? Tell me, is the sun out?’ ”
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Published in The Kansas City Star, Nov. 2, 2008:
Donna Trussell turns survival and loss into powerful poetry
By KATHLEEN JOHNSON
Special to The Star
Donna Trussell is a survivor. Poems in What’s Right About What’s Wrong, her debut collection, are eloquent testimony to that.
In 2001 Trussell (who is married to Star theater critic Robert Trussell) learned she had ovarian cancer. It makes sense, then, that so much of her verse bears the mark of someone who knows firsthand what it is to survive, of someone who has found out the hard way what’s right about what’s wrong.
Trussell’s “To Miss Candace Mayes, Lost on the Titanic,” about a woman who survived the sinking of the famous ocean liner, is one of the most moving portraits of a survivor I have ever read.
The poem is spare, polished and perfect. It begins with a depiction of a woman who drowned during the disaster: “You’d be gone by now anyway./You would have married,/grated nutmeg,/buried a husband in Boston,/knitted and traveled/until your children buried you.”
The narrative ends by showing – with telling yet understated details – the effect the drowned woman’s act of sacrifice had on the life of Mrs. Wilkins, the person she saved by offering her place on a collapsible lifeboat:
Mrs. Wilkins later divorced
and went to an asylum.
She’d tried everything—
painting, charity work, a pilot’s license.
Her hands would climb the trellis.
Her feet were never still.
This is one of several poems that deal with what is gone and what is left behind. This classic poetic theme of loss serves richly throughout the collection. “Posthumous Poem,” which closes the book with sure-handed and skillful finality, demonstrates Trussell’s lean, emotionally scrupulous style. Not a word is wasted.
Another similar work that deals with death, “Premonition,” is equally sculpted, stripped down to essentials that bring about a profound response in the reader. Images tumble dreamlike through the nine stanzas, ending with light, lingering, unforgettable lines that shimmer with truth:
She must get ready.
She gives everything away—
money, books, her lover,
still in the box.
But there’s always more.
She envies babies
with just smiles
and soft skin.
She envies the Sphinx,
with only wind
In What’s Right About What’s Wrong, Trussell’s verse thrives on ultimate terms: the tension and polarity between living and dying. Her finest poems could have been written only by someone who has come face to face with such terms.
What’s Right About What’s Wrong, by Donna Trussell (62 pages; Helicon Nine Editions; $9.95)
Kathleen Johnson, author of Burn , lives in Baldwin City, Kan.
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