Book Review: What the Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say

A look at Sharon Waller Knutson’s wildly inventive and engaging collection of poems, What the Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say…

by: Carolynn Kingyens

The first Sharon Waller Knutson poem I ever read was “I Am Hired after the Management Company is Fired for Not Collecting the Rent” which I found on the Red Eft Review in 2020. I was immediately taken by the poet’s genius, originality and captivating storytelling that often plays out like a microfilm-vignette in the readers’ minds. Her poetic characters are unforgettable, and make profound impressions, like the 19-year-old tenant, along with his 17-year-old “pregnant wife” who have scamming the welfare system and charity organizations with mathematical efficiency:

“He flicks butts on the lawn

and oil drips in the driveway

daily as she tells me

about the termites, the ants

the mice, the fried wires,

banging pipes. Something stinks.

I know something stinks

as the experts bill me

for their wasted time. 

I’m stuck with them, because

the rent checks keep coming

from the county, the state,

the Baptists, the Lutherans,

the Presbyterians, the Methodists,

the Mormons and the Unitarians.

My patience is as thin as her body.”

The poems in Waller Knutson’s highly anticipated new collection, What The Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say, published by Kelsay Books, encompass a span of time over sixty years, and over one hundred and forty pages, from Waller Knutson’s early days as a Midwestern rookie reporter through to the sudden loss of her beloved son, Ben, in 2021. The poems are broken up into six sections, beginning with Idol Worship, then followed by Past Lives, Earth Angels, Channeling Spirits, Present Life,  and The Afterlife

The book begins with the title poem “What the Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say,” which tells the story of meeting a “Picasso like painter” on vacation who doesn’t pick her up at the Mexico City airport after she quits her job to study fiction writing:

“And you will ride a bus

with squawking chickens for hours.

You will fall in love 

with the mariachis and matadors,

the guard dog who sleeps 

in your bed, and the novelist

with a wife and kids in toronto

who will break your heart.”

As the book advances, readers will find themselves meandering through a time before the #MeToo movement, when Waller Knutson was a young rookie reporter dining with the city editor at Fritz’s Cafe, “wearing a sweater, gray as the Montana sky,” on the day she learned President Kennedy was assassinated in the poem “November 22, 1963, 12:30 pm.”

In the poem “Home Ec,” we meet Miss Marcy, Waller Knutson’s unrelenting Home Ec teacher, who after struggling to master the sew-job on her skirt assignment, gets an unsympathetic order from Miss Marcy to “finish it by Monday”:

“I show it to my mother. She takes 

the skirt to the seamstress. 

On Monday, Miss Marcy examines the seams

straight as train tracks. Did your mother

sew this? I cannot tell a lie.

No Ma’am. My mother cannot sew.

Waller Knutson ends up passing Home Ec because Miss Marcy loves her lasagna, which her father teaches her to bake. In the poem “Miss Marcy,” set many years later, Waller Knutson runs into Miss Marcy again in the unlikeliest of places — the courtroom. Waller Knutson, by now, is a reporter for the Billings Gazette when Miss Marcy’s public defender asks her why she wants to interview a prostitute: “She was my teacher; I say / He laughs. / What did she teach: Sex Education?/ Home Ec, I say.” One must note Waller Knutson’s brilliant use of irony here, and in many poems throughout What the Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say. It was Miss Marcy, after all, who once shamelessly scolded her bright, talented student for wanting to be a writer, shrieking: 

“You’ve got a big head ever since

that fat cow who teaches English

gave you an A on your short stories

and allowed you to play Lady Macbeth

in those pathetic plays she produces.

I’m trying to drill practice skills

in your thick skull like sewing,

cooking and cleaning but you don’t 

get it. You’ll never be a writer 

or actress or leave this town.”

What makes her poetry even more astonishing is that most, if not all, of her poetry is autobiographical, real life experiences like in the poem “Taking the Doberman to the Vets in the Movie Director’s Limousine in Mexico,” in which Waller Knutson writes:

I can tell he regrets 

stopping on the cobbled 

street where I wave my arms

and Sylvia howls and shows

him her sore paw

and I assure him she 

doesn’t have fleas 

and isn’t contagious 

because he is handing 

me a paper towel and telling 

me to wipe up the slobber 

before it ruins his leather seats. 

I now have the good fortune of calling Sharon Waller Knutson my friend, and I wasn’t surprised when I learned she’s a real life clairvoyant. I’ve been tempted to email her, on the rare occasion or two, to ask her what the clairvoyant would say, but stopped short of hitting send. 

Sharon Waller Knutson’s life is a life well-lived. Readers will meet a cast of indelible characters in What the Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say, who will make you laugh, and cry. Who will make you shake your head, and root for when down in the trenches. I highly recommend this book. It’s an unforgettable read, an unforgettable journey. 

 

Sharon Waller Knutson is a retired journalist who lives in a wildlife habitat in Arizona where she writes accessible narrative poetry about her life experiences . She has been published in numerous journals and is the author of five chapbooks, including Dancing with a Scorpion by Moon Journal Press (2005) and My Grandmother smokes Chesterfields by Flutter Press (2014) and a new chapbook, Trials & Tribulations of Sports Bob, by Kelsay Books in October 2021. 

Carolynn Kingyens is the author of Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound and the newly released book Coupling, both by Kelsay Books. In addition to poetry, Carolynn writes essays, book and film reviews, micro fiction and short stories. 

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