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Book Report: Profound, thoughtful works stir emotions

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It takes a poet to wrestle together images as disparate as Cecil Beaton's society portraits and WPA photographer Dorothea Lange's pictures of disenfranchised folks.

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Such a poet is R. H. Miller, professor emeritus at the University of Louisville.

I recently received his chapbook, "A Long Glance" (Finishing Line Press/Box 1626/Georgetown, KY 40324, $12) and was touched by all of the poems within, but most touched by "Two Sisters," possibly because I had just read a story about Lange's memorable portrait of the Okie woman and child which I can't get out of my head.

Here is Miller's take on this woman and an actress:

"Every detail perfection in its finish," Cecil Beaton, 'The Parting Years.'

"Two brilliant photographs,

The light so delicate, the shapes

crisp in their frames, shadowed,

glistening in bright pockets with an expectant dread.

"In 1935 Cecil Beaton posed her,

grottoed, prisoned in begonias,

in ribbons, ruffles, and lawn.

The actress Diana Wynyard

rests one frantic hand on a parasol

and like a captive looks

beyond the lens toward home.

"In the next year

Dorothea Lange found

Diana's Okie sister,

lost in California.

Migrant mother sits in a tent,

nestled in her children,

tossed, broken flowers.

She stares into the rain

at that Wynyard angle, holds

a hand to her shocked face

and looks toward home.

"Image and image,

moment and moment converge,

when we see with a joined eye

one truth purely,

as Cecil and Dorothea saw

in two separate groves

sisters of the same look,

the look of Ruth,

sick for home."

*****

When Samuel Richardson wrote one of the English language's first epistolary novels, entitled "Pamela," he probably never dreamed that North Carolinian George Bishop would write such a novel about four centuries later. "Letter to My Daughter" (Ballantine Books, $20) takes that epistolary form into the 21st century.

It all begins when the letter writer, Laura, slaps her teenage daughter's face, precipitating the daughter taking off in the family car and leaving Baton Rouge for God knows where. Anxious with fear, Laura sits down to write her daughter a letter to tell the girl "everything I've always meant to tell you but never have."

And so begins Laura's story, the story of a young girl growing up in rural Louisiana. Her parents, she tells her daughter, "were, if you were feeling generous, you might call conservative. If you were feeling more honest, you might call them narrow minded and racist."

Laura begins dating a Cajun boy and when she's caught having sex with him on the living room carpet, her parents send her off to Catholic boarding school, where Sister Mary Margaret teaches her important lessons in life.

Come to think of it, "Letter to My Daughter" is really different than Richardson's "Pamela," which counsels virginity so as to drive a suitor to the altar. Bishop's lessons are much more coherent.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 426-9554.

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