Sightlines (Riehl)

Sightlines: A Poet's Diary
Janet Grace Riehl, 2006
iUniverse, Inc.
171 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780595374991

As the author of this book, I want to share some of the creative process behind writing Sightlines. The book evolved over a year, following a secluded retreat, in response to my sister's death in a car accident.

During this time, I came to a strong sense that the world is charged with meaning, and that is a poem. The only trick is to tease out the meaning. That is what I proceeded to do as I moved back and forth between my Midwest home to my Northern California home.

Putting together this poet's diary was a little like assembling a 1,000 piece puzzle. Mortality became keenly real to me as my parents and I aged together. The sorrow of life's fragility, and joy at its tenderness, form the sightlines of all five sections in this collection of 90 poems as I examine and share the people and places of my life.

Her more recent CD version features Janet's voice reading her poems and stories, with music provided by her 93-year-old father.

Author Author
Following a family tragedy, Janet Grace Riehl returned to her childhood home in the Midwest. There, through her craft, she discovered a new sense of connection reuniting her, and the reader, with life through her debut collection Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.

Janet is an award-winning author, artist, performer, community mentor, and creative collaborator. Her poems, stories, and essays have been widely published in national literary magazines such as Harvard Review and the anthologies Stories to Live By: Wisdom to Help You Make the Most of Every Day and Hot Flashes 2.

Her life moves between the big city in St. Louis in the Central West End to the family home place on the bluffs above the Mississippi River in Southwestern Illinois where she collaborates on creative projects with her 92-year-old father. (From the author's website.)

Book Reviews
Rich and vibrant, complete with vivid language that bursts, or sneaks, into your mind.
James BlueWolf (Author)

I had read Sightlines: A Poet's Diary and truth be told, I did not want to listen to the spoken version. I feared that my personal experience of the written poems, which had been profoundly moving, would be diminished. I need not have feared. Although listening was a different experience, it was as rich and meaningful as reading had been.
Marcelline M. Burns (Amazon Customer Review)

Janet examines selected pieces of her family’s lives, picking them up, turning them over, scrutinizing them like pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle. She tells the story of each piece as a vignette…with a twist. Narrative is not Janet’s medium, but rather something she calls the story-poem.... Story-poems are spare, yet rich in sensory description and emotion. As you read, you become engrossed…a story unfolds. There is logic, if not always a chronology, to her story-poem progression.... With the Sightlines audiobook, Janet has given us more than a heartfelt family chronicle. She breaks barriers for the memoir genre that should get every memoirist thinking. The writer in me is inspired to create something unique for my family.
Kendra Bonnett - Women's Memoirs Review

The new audio book Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry & Music by Janet Riehl is a compilation of very personal music and poetry that is not to be missed.

Riehl's audio book developed from her written text, Sightlines: A Poet's Diary, which was published in 2006. With the new release, Riehl adds the elements of down-home music and her own voice bringing life to the poems she created. The musical component features her father's singing and fiddle playing as he is joined by other musicians for recordings that took place in his living room. The fact that the music was not performed in a high-tech professional studio makes its inclusion even more appealing and appropriate.

The poems by Janet Riehl are divided into five groupings that are spread over four CDs. The first section is devoted to her sister Julia (also known as Skeeter), who was tragically killed in a car crash several years ago. The emotional images Riehl creates through her words examine Julia's work, her love of life, the moment of her death, and the longing of those she left behind. Riehl goes on to share equally captivating poetry about her father, her mother, and two places that have special meaning to her—the family home in Evergreen Heights and her later residence of Clear Lake in Northern California. In addition to the poems themselves, Riehl provides emotional commentary that fills in the missing pieces and develops a more complete memory for the listeners to enjoy. Her words are straightforward, beautifully crafted, and offer a wonderful piece of storytelling.

From beginning to end, the new audio book Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry & Music is a delight....The audio segments have been expertly compiled and edited to create the comfortable atmosphere of someone's home while also displaying professional detail to recording quality and content progression. Each moment of the CDs is filled with warmth, humor, and a deep connection to those who have come before us. Sightlines is a must-have audio book for anyone who appreciates a good love story with the perfect musical accompaniment!
Sarah Moore - Writers in the Sky

This recorded version of Sightlines: A Poet's Diary (2006) expands on the original 90 poems by including brief clips of 40 songs played by her 93-year-old father and his Sunday Afternoon music group. The poems are further set in a wider context with her father's stories, and he reads the poems he wrote that open Sightlines, along with the lines of dialogue that appear in poems sprinkled throughout. In this unique offering, we glimpse the lives, past and present, of the poet and her family.

Together words and songs weave a magical tapestry of myriad threads, recounting family folklore in the warm timbres of Riehl's quiet-spoken voice, each story-poem set in the lively rhythms of fiddles, guitars and mandolins, music reminiscent of a bygone era. The sometimes slightly discordant notes of the violin merely add to the beauty of the tales told.

This series of poems and songs is a memoir. It is also a series of love poems, composed in memory and celebration of three people and two places Riehl loves. She traces the treasured reminiscences of a childhood shared with her two older siblings—her sister, Julia Ann, and her brother, Gary, tenderly watched over by loving parents. Her attentiveness to detail is evident in the images and words which reflect her considered awareness of who she is and where she comes from. Here is where Riehl composes the haunting and lyrical songs to her sister, tragically killed in an automobile accident, an experience so devastating that almost every succeeding poem is written in reference, either directly or obliquely, to it. The mother and father captured on her pages are our mothers and fathers, the love she expresses for them is the love we feel for our own.

One striking feature of Riehl's poetry is the unmistakeable sense of presence that the author brings to her subject matter. Pick any poem from the book, and almost immediately the reader comes face to face, as it were, with the poet. She recounts, sometimes in devastating and searingly honest detail, her mother's progressive dance towards death. She is not afraid to open herself to the suffering of returning and re-living the death of her sister, a tragedy that changed everything. Riehl is a woman who has seen a lot, more in fact than many of us would wish to encounter. Yet her presence assures us that we too can survive the unthinkable; that we can live to tell the tale. And what is more, that in telling our stories we become more of who we are destined to be.

If we can locate the bravery within ourselves that Riehl points us towards, then we too may become in time as compassionate, caring, understanding and yes, even forgiving, as she. For indeed is this not what the best memoirs do? They do not point the finger of blame, but rather paint a picture of a wholly believable individual, someone who might have been our sister or brother or mother or father.

In the end it is the universality of her subject matter that renders her poetry so accessible. We read her poems not just to peep through a window into her life, but to lift the veil a little on our own, so that we may perhaps learn something about ourselves and our loved ones, even while we swim in the subterranean waters of her words.
Edith O'Nuallain - Story Circle Book Reviews

Discussion Questions
(These questions are provided by LitLovers and the author. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution.)

1. Choose a poem that has resonance for you. Listen to Janet’s reading and the interlude music on the Sightlines audio book. Why does that particular poem carry personal meaning? Does listening to Janet’s reading clarify or deepen your response to the poem?

2. How do the 90 poems relate to the songs, banter, and stories in the interlude? Pick a track to listen to and discuss how each relates to each other. What does the music bring to your experience in reading/hearing the poetry.

2. Edith O'Nuallain, a reviewer (see above) mentions the poet's bravery in facing loss of loved ones. Where in these poems do you find words that convey emotional solidity, the poet's strength through adversity?

3. Does poetry have a special ability to convey emotions such as longing, suffering, sadness, quiet acceptance and joy? Are poems different from a novel's expressivity? If you think so, in what way?

4. Riehl calls the poems in Sightlines "story poems" which she defines as "combining highly compressed narrative, musing, and observation using poetic techniques such as alliteration, imagery, and metaphor." In the story poem, as in prose, the sentence rather than the line is the primary unit. Her aim is to condense the work while keeping it accessible. How well do you feel this form succeeds in telling her story?

5. Riehl views Sightlines as an extended narrative, each piece fitting into another like a puzzle. What is the overall narrative spanning the five sections in the book? Is there a narrative arc, as in a piece of prose such as a novel or a memoir?

6. Riehl writes of three people and two places she loves. What would be on your short list for people and places you love?

7. Riehl has identified several themes in Sightlines: power of place, time, family, home, memory, and impermanence (the fragility and change in life). What are some of the poems you’d include in each theme? Do you see other themes here? Is there an over-all message? As a reader do you need a message?

8. The author has kindly offered up a recipe for her father's scrapple, a traditional loaf made of cornmeal and pork. It would be fun to serve it at a meeting devoted to Sightlines.

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