Saturday, May 03, 2008

Micro Reviews: Freshly Rooted, and Pity the Drowned Horses

I just finished Emily Wall's Freshly Rooted and Sheryl Luna's Pity the Drowned Horses, and as distinct as the poetry in each is, I'm struck by their similarities. Both have a rich relationship to place: landscape fully forms and informs the poetry.

For Wall, whose book was published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry in 2007, the place is Alaska, predominantly, and Juneau where she lives now, dark with rain and ravens and a kind of redemption that the landscape both gives and demands. For example:

Three black knives
cleave morning air.
Snow has softened the sound
but even driving
beside them, we hear
the slicing of wings.

- from "Composition: Ravens"

While there's a Mary Oliver-like quality to much of the poetry, there's also an intimacy with the built places of Wall's northern (and sometimes southern) world not so common in Oliver's work, and toward the end of the book a certain jazzy tendancy that I find quite lovely. For example, the first stanza of "Rain on South Franklin Street," one of my favorites:

Oh you know that
voodoo rain,
the way he carries
his names, giving a new one
at each gas station
liquor store—
now he's she-rain
all seductive tears and tongue,
now dog
rain, teeth & yips on the metal roof.

If Wall's influence is largely Oliver, then Sheryl Luna's poetic influence may be Jimmy Santiago Baca, whose Black Mesa Poems is a collection to emulate indeed. But that comparison may be too easy. While I find Baca's work to have a certain shamanistic quality, Luna's is mythical in a different and I feel deeper sense. It's a tie to landscape removed and then returned, a lineage of place both terrible and rewarding, an impressive poetic narrative of life on the border. It's no surprise, then, that Pity the Drowned Horses was awarded the inaugural Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize from the Institute for Latino Studies and the Creative Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame in 2004.

"Fence on the Border" near the end of the collection is perhaps my favorite. It begins:

It is in the bending and the pain,
the way old paint scrapes off old wood,
the way elders light our way through time
on their way to a smaller frailty.

Luna's success, in part, stems from the fact that she crafts an honest perspective, honest story and scene if you will, without bludgeoning the reader in image or sensibility. That is, the poetry is elegant yet narrative, flowing yet tight. Woven is close to the right word.

From "The Bullfight:"

My blood, of necessity, will eventually seep
into the desert; it is the way of my people;
it is the way of all people: crossing borders,

learning of caliche and wind, building monuments
from mud, finding something of themselves,
losing something of themselves.

If having an intimate relationship with place means losing something of themselves, then readers are the ones who gain in Freshly Rooted and Pity the Drowned Horses.

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

I'm with you on Sheryl Luna's book, she knocked my socks off. I'll have to check out Freshly Rooted.