Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music
by Janet Grace Riehl

Disc Makers, 2008. ISBN B0020SQFRC.
Reviewed by Edith O'Nuallain
Posted on 05/18/2009

Poetry; Nonfiction: Memoir

Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music by Janet Grace Riehl consists of 4 audio CDs, which combine the poems previously published in Riehl's book of the same title. 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.


Janet Grace Riehl is an award-winning author, artist, performer, community mentor, and creative collaborator. 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. Visit her website.

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