Jean Sands' second full-length poetry collection, "Close But Not Touching," was published a few months after her death in October, 2016.  Sands had been working on this volume for more than a year, a process slowed by debilitating illness.  This collection, like her first book, "Gandy Dancing," is autobiographical, raw, plainly written, and powerful.  Both books deal with sexual abuse, marital abuse, dysfunctional family dynamics, divorce, poverty, and a woman's struggle to survive.  And in Sands' case, to write about that survival.

The 47 poems in "Close But Not Touching" are divided into four sections.  The first examines Sands' childhood.  Her mother, born in Hungary, as a child terrified of German soldiers, is failing. In  the book's opening poem, "When Mother Stopped Remembering," Sands introduces her themes of human rights, sexual and physical abuses, and the need to speak out against them. The poem closes with Sands'  mother forgetting words, growing silent, and giving up books.
"In Germany, they emptied the shelves, /  burned the books, the men, the women, the children." (pp 4-5).  Sands' response to the loss of words, of power, is her poetry.

In "Becoming Helen" (pp 7-9), Sands pays tribute to an older woman writer who became a mentor. "Forty years later the keyboard clicks under my fingers, / unseen hands hover above mine." The specter of sexual abuse is raised in "The Peach Farmer's Daughter" (p 15).  Abused by her father, even after his death the daughter can't forget "his liquor breath, his fingers inside." In other poems in this section, Sands addresses aggression ("Pigs" p 16), loss of innocence ("Plum" p 17), humiliation ("The Music Lesson" p 18), and desire ("Danbury Fair" p 19).

The second section takes a loving and yet brutally forthright look at Sands'  four sons and how her marriages and divorces affected them.  She doesn't spare herself--her poor choices--or the sons' fathers.  Especially strong poems include "Night Sounds," "Suicide," "Swimmer," "The Policeman Is Your Friend," and "Father Poem" (pp 26-30).

The poems in section three chronicle the author's divorce from her abusive second husband, specifically, but also her hard-to-shake feelings of entrapment and helplessness in the face first of childhood sexual abuse and then of marital physical abuse.  In "Car Ride" she writes "I can't do this anymore, // I can't do this, // I can't" (pp 38-39).  Forced from her home by police pounding at her door in the dark, she writes "You set me up / ex-husband with greed on your mind. / Money hungry at anybody's expense but your own" (p 40).  Divorce leads to poverty for the author.  "Divorce Settlement," "Working in a Discount Store after the Divorce,"  and "Saving the Universe" will ring true for many who must struggle for subsistence from day to day (pp 46-48).

Section Four brings this collection full circle, offering hope and resolution.  The author has met another man, a good man.  In poems such as "Rain" (p 60) and "As Evening Comes" (p 64) there is a softening, a willingness to open to this new life and new love.  In perhaps the most moving poem in the collection, "At the Vet's Office" (p 65-66), Sands looks back at her marriages ("The first one was a hitter-- / open palms, threatening fists . . . The second one, worse.  A handsome man / with no past.  I should have known / his clamming up was covering up") and compares her past with her present: "I am overwhelmed with gratitude / for the sweet man who will pick up the cat / and pay the bill without a word" (p 66).   This "sweet man" was married to Sands for more than 25 years, became her writing partner, a father to her four sons, and served as her caretaker through many years of her  illness.


In her gracious foreword to "Close But Not Touching," poet and playwright Jeanne Bryner writes "[Sands] is fully present at the table of her life and walks in communion with what has been and what will be.  We must be grateful to such a woman for taking time to  hang her poems on the line where all the neighbors can count the patches in her quilt" (p x).

Jean Sands was primarily a self-taught poet, at first educated by habits of voracious reading and, later, mentored by poet Honor Moore in one-day workshops, then by faithful attendance at a writers' workshop that continued for years. Sands' writing, fortunately for her readers, has never been "tamed."  It remains a bit unruly, a bit rude.  She refused to polish out the tougher phrases, the too startling metaphors.  She shared her intuitive writing skills with others, for many years running a workshop for senior citizens, serving briefly as a poet in the schools, and working one-on-one with many authors who benefited from her assistance. I was privileged to know Jean Sands and to discuss poetry and life with her for more than 30 years.  We often read together at libraries and bookstores; at almost every reading, women would approach Jean, sometimes with tears in their eyes, thanking her for speaking out, for saying what they never had the courage to say.


Antrim House

Place Published

Simsbury, CT



Page Count