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  • Writer's pictureKristin Kowalski Ferragut

A Visit with Kathleen O’Toole’s "This Far"

Kathleen O’Toole speaks to so many levels of experience, elements of history, and states of being in her poetry collection This Far (Paraclete Press, 2019) that it is daunting to consider writing a review. Indeed, I know I’ll return to it several more times and will gain more insight. My intrigue and investment has grown with every hour spent with this collection and I already have many poems flagged for more study and to reference. So let’s consider this more of a visit with Kathleen’s work than a review. I think readers will want to experience this collection first-hand.


This Far contains fifty-one poems divided into three sections — I: Their Voices, II: Lumen de Lumine (meaning Light from Light), and III: What Kind of Silence. Each section is infused with studies in contrast, in light and dark, in nature, with especially beautiful imagery of birds, birdsongs, and trees. The poems address dying, loss, and remembering; geographical characteristics and artistic masterpieces observed through travel around the world; reflections on divinity and saints, and powerful narrative poems of people thoughtfully elevated out of historical obscurity, including Willie Reed, Emmit Till’s Cousin (“Witness,” p. 70) and Jimmy Lee Jackson, an African American Civil Rights Activist who was killed in Alabama in 1965 (“Among the Martyrs,” p. 76). I will share excerpts of poems from each section. 


I love voices and remembering voices that are no longer  — my friend Kevin’s laugh, my Dad’s singing, how my Nana voice acted “Jack and the Beanstalk” at my bedtime. So I was drawn to “Their Voices” (p. 14).


…I rummage drawers of half-sleep for the voices

of my three aunts, lest time erase

the special timbre of their speech: the way


Ann’s laughter endures, despite the din

of a decade’s chatter, erupts in raspy

bursts—gin fizz from a barkeep’s

wand. Her Lucky Strike aloft…


I feel as though I know Ann, Flo, and Ginny through Kathleen’s poem and I love them. I feel a warm familiarity with the narrator’s mother and father, feel compassion for the loss, and somehow find grace in these poems to honor my own mourning.


From “At the Mariner’s Chapel, Auvillar” (p. 39):


…The artist is reading a book. I approach to ask him,

myself perhaps too, how much of what has emerged

to shimmer indistinct on these canvases, was born

of clear intent, how much the random encounter

of paint and canvas—an emergence, absent

the strong arm of will. Where, I wonder, has the ego

yielded lines to shadowing, a palette of sun

and gathering clouds into feathering, flight. His reply,

tossed like a pebble echoes: does it not all come

from the void? Myself, at the well’s rim, listening.


I find this a delightful exploration of the creative process.


If I were to describe this collection in one word I would say expansive. It may be that the distance and themes traveled in the subjects of the poems could be described as expansive, but I believe that word is best applied to how reflections of the pieces, individually and as a whole, stretch my perspectives. 


Kathleen offers a beautiful introduction in the book, explaining the title and offering some context. Her website (https://kathleenotoolepoetry.com/about/) and background are also interesting. I’m particularly fascinated by her devotion to religion that, through her poems, feels  free of dogmatic weight, something I’m a bit accustomed to from Catholicism, but rather filled with charming intimacy and light. I end with an excerpt from “Lauds, Aberdeen Creek” (p. 68).


First hints of sunrise

appear in cloud script

on Aberdeen inlet, scattered 

with the shrill of osprey…

…no one’s stirring. This

is the grateful hour.


…I’ll wait


for the great blue

heron to drift down,

wings arced toward the east,

as if to honor the light.

No one of us owns

this dawn, pink and unbidden

but each, in its own tongue

can articulate

praise.






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alisonhpalmer
Jul 01

Looks like a 👌 book to explore! Thanks for the intriguing review.

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