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Breaking the Surface Poems: 2007-2009

Book Details

Breaking the Surface ($7.50 paper / $1.99 kindle), a chapbook of poems written about the lake house in Northern Wisconsin where the poet spent summers in her youth and that she still shares with her family. They are poems of memory and place as well as encompassing the arc of a life lived.

A Poetry of Place

The summer of 1941 seemed a world away from the wars in Europe and Asia that would soon consume all of our time and attention. That July, while our family visited one of my father’s relatives in Michigan, my mother received a call that her father had suffered a heart attack in Minnesota. My parents chose the shortest route to reach him, and that route took us right through the North Woods of Wisconsin.

As we drove up US 51, we came to a bridge with a view of a blue lake, a long point nearly bisecting it, and many islands within it. “I want a house on that lake,” Mother said.

Her statement found a home in Breaking the Surface, just as four generations of our family has found refuge, comfort, and a connection to nature in the house she wanted.

Breaking the Surface combines poetry about nature, human motivation, conflicts, and resolutions—all connected to the place we recognize as our spiritual home.

Chapter / Excerpt

Past and Future Tense

March 22, 2010

Under my hand the lichen
gray and sage
abrades like sandpaper.
but I hold the tree trunk
close, the way I hold
my grandchildren
and pray for their safety.

I know the humble spores
have survived ice and fire,
will outlive the saw
bitter rain and the bomb
and when all my children’s children
have long disappeared
the decent lichen
will spread itself
to cover the nakedness of stone.

The Doll House

February 22, 2010

​Fine furniture made in the late years
between World Wars and marked “Germany”
sits on tiny needlepoint rugs
Mother made one summer.

​Rearranged first by me
and then by the careful fingertips
of daughter and granddaughters,
miniature dishes and lamps
have lost their tags and stamps
that said “Made in Japan.”

​Two weeks after the bombs
fell on Hawaii
Mother and I went downtown
to the small shop
a few steps off Broadway
eager to buy candlesticks
or vases of flowers
from the almond eyed woman
and her slender husband.

Hand in hand we stared
at the empty shop
door with a cross of raw lumber
battered plate glass window
held in place by wide strips of tape.

“Where did thy go?”
She shook her head.
It would be four years before
we realized
the full meaning of the word

Looking for Perfection

February 4, 2010

​Each fall
I walk the asphalt road
turned to satin
by rain
and search the splatters
of maple leaves
to find one
perfect crimson star
the size of a baby’s hand.

Today I found one
or so I thought
until I saw
some rogue insect
had preceded me
eating a hole–

–a perfect oval.

“Looking for Perfection” appeared in The Northern Virginia Review, Vol. 22.

Always Decisive

February 15, 2010

​At eight years old
she stood in the empty bedroom
of the new house
in Cairo, West Virginia
and said to her six-year-old sister
“This is my room. That one’s yours.”

​As her husband drove across the bridge
in Northern Wisconsin she announced,
“I want a house on that lake.”

​He didn’t slow the dark blue Packard
with the metal covered spare tires
on the front fenders,
but seven miles up the road
the family stopped for the night
at a white clapboard inn with a green roof.

​He never mentioned her remark.
She took notes—
town location,
address of real estate agent,
name of lake,
place to stay the following summer.

​It all began like dropping a stone
into the crystal blue of the lake
the ripples gently disturbing
the surface of our lives
now into the fourth generation.

Spring Cleaning

February 11, 2010
My daughter says everything in this house
has its own story
from great-grandmother’s quilt
and mother’s ruby depression glass
to things I once unwrapped
from white paper and ribbon
reserved for wedding gifts.

​Each spring, when I open the house
to clean and wash and rearrange
I remember the stories
and whisper them away with the dust
to make the ghosts more comfortable.



January 4, 2010

my grandchildren, quarrelling in the bedroom
made me remember how much
I hated him.

​Three years older, he got to do everything
I wanted to do.

​He thought of me as spoiled and pampered
and I thought of him as privileged in that special way
a first born can be.

​He was an expert tease, careful to ply his trade
out of sight or hearing of our parents
and sometimes teasing
pushed at the edges
of abuse.

​I cried
and earned that superior contempt
reserved for younger siblings.

​I raged
and the punishment I felt he deserved
came down on me like red fire.

​I competed
but victories came only in their due time
like the driver’s license I coveted.

Life’s eraser dimmed the lines
transformed the hate
into a bond I miss.

I am one day older than he will ever be.


Breaking the Surface juggles a wide range of emotions within a large periphery, a perspective that includes that wisdom of a certain age when there is much to cull from family, culture, and individual histories. Never sentimental, the poems do not shirk from the truth, nor is anger ignored. Sharp twists of irony delight, such as in the poem “Looking for Perfection,” when the reader discovers with the poet that the only perfection on a bright leaf is “a perfect oval” carved out by an insect; or a poem confronting sibling rivalry leads us to “Today I am only one day older than he will ever be.” The elegantly sculpted stanzas create an easy flow in which we can savor the treats of poetry: lusciously extended metaphors such as in “Weather Report,” which cunningly examines marriage; or vivid descriptions of Wisconsin scenes that enhance the poem’s meanings, and unflinching contemplations on the myriad shades of family life woven throughout this powerful collection.
– Christine Swanberg

From the first “Search for Perfection” and its surprising ending, we expect an insight into the natural beauty of woods and lake as well as an understanding of change and pain. Janet Taliaferro does not disappoint. Her chapbook of “stor[ies]…cut to their own pattern” is lovely and intense. She shows us how to make “the ghosts” of our own lives “more comfortable.” Breaking the Surface is writing by a mature poet in control of her craft.
– Mary Sue Koeppel