Review by Kelly Eastlund
Motionless from the Iron Bridge: A Northwest Anthology of Bridge Poems
Edited by John Sibley Williams
Bare bone books
2013, 38 pp., $7.50
The first thing that struck me about this anthology, after Jonette Swanson’s haunting iron bridge image on the cover, was the word “motionless” in the title. It hung in my mind, quietly demanding attention. The title, which comes from a poem of the same name by the book’s editor, John Sibley Williams, perfectly captures the contemplative yet grounded tone running through this collection.
Featuring 12 poets from the Portland area, Motionless celebrates Portland’s famous bridges and rivers through a variety of poetic styles. Voices include well-known writers, such as Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen and award winning poet David Biespiel, as well as several newer names.
The book’s organization has a pleasing, bridge-like symmetry. It is divided into two parts, each introduced by a stunning haiku by Katharine Quince in memory of Kirk Reeves. Strong poems by A. Molotkov: “Building” and “Being” act as the footings at the start and end. And in between is an arching span of diverse voices that explore the timeless bridge theme from distinct angles.
“Winter/Spring” by Leah Stenson speaks of connections between seasons, cultures, and human beings, using midline spaces to create a visual river within the poem. The result is in essentially two poems in one: You can read one side and the other, or across the gap, and it works both ways. Later in the book, Coleman Stevenson also employs this technique wonderfully in “What are we to do with so much water between us?” (I’m sure there is a name for this form, but I don’t know what it is.)
Paulann Petersen’s “To the Milky Way,” a reflection on the connections between the earth and the cosmos, feels like an intimate prayer:
Celestial River of Unfamiliar Suns.
Find me where I’ve come to stand
on a bridge’s arc, gazing downward
at an earth-river’s homeward flow.
While the book is rich in metaphor, it also delves into the topic on a visceral level. “Ross Island Bridge” by Chris Cottrell, for example, gives readers an up-close, gritty view from the perspective of a cyclist in late winter:
dust from gravel
left on the street in homage
to our week of wet snow
whips the body of those
too poor or bold to drive
or ride a bus.
In David Biespiel’s “Starlings” we witness the beautiful mingling of the natural and manmade world:
Thus all the starlings rose into the netting of rain
They rose over the downtown cranes
One sees gleaming, at evening, above the glass and steel,
On second reading, commonalities began to emerge. Parent-child relationships appear in several of the poems, including Sam Roderick Roxas-Chua’s “Jesus” with blistering lines such as:
…Your mother, Maria,
is going blind behind her dark
And again in “Wonder is a Bridge” by David Cooke:
wonder is a bridge
holding you over the world
like the heels
of your father’s hands
on your hipbones
in the air.
The idea of being at the mid-point of a bridge is repeated too—in “A Different Gravity” by John Sibley Williams:
In the middle of the bridge, where
any step crosses a threshold,
And in “Suspended” by Carrie-Ann Tkaczyk:
orphaned at the center
Yet to me
this axis is a nest.
Motionless from the Iron Bridge provides an ensemble of well-crafted meditations on universal themes. So much of our culture worships motion—busy-ness, action, progress. The book’s title with its promise of something deeper and restful drew me in, and it more than delivered on that promise.
Sara Burant. Verge. Finishing Line Press. $14
Comment by Erik Muller
One virtue of chapbooks is their clarity of intent that can be sustained for a reading straight through. It is a rare larger volume that allows this.
Sara Burant’s Verge assuredly develops its title as theme and variations. The verge is principally a border, an edge, the brink of something. It is also movement in a direction. The vision of the poems allows that this something, this direction, can be both known and unknown, both grasped and unattained. Another variation, verger, suggests someone, the poet in this case, who takes care of the interior of a church and acts as attendant during ceremonies.
One verge is the boundary between the human and natural worlds. The adolescent student in the poem “Verge” yearns to be free of the classroom and outside with a “flicker of bright something,” a bevy of monarch butterflies. She is maturing for flight. The Japanese Garden can call the adult to things she needs to relearn, how to unwind “to be small/as a winter wren, how to enter/the secret rooms of ferns.”
Another verge locates the speaker between wanting and not wanting to recognize “our other selves,” as revealed by the burgeoning mushrooms, pushing from underground in all-too-human fingertips, skin, and lips. “We’re caught on the verge” because to be known fully can be “forbidden, even dangerous.”
The most tender verge involves the poet and her father in the several pieces during her childhood and after his death. In his saying “Goodnight now Sara,” she is safely at one with him, yet the verge is acute as she writes his elegy. The winter-wren with the power to sing “the sky inside him” is the tutelary muse:
Sing to them, winter wren. Tell them the dead,
linger inside us like song.
Song is at the heart of these variations, music being made, being carried. Burant manages even her anecdotal poems as harmonies, drawing together disparate materials and emotions, expressing them smoothly and collectedly. As in the trim lines of “Song”:
It is light here
this heart is boundless
And in “All Flesh,” a poem concluded with one Christian reference among several in the collection, this to the mystic of Norwich:
for the flames I became, the heat, the rising,
shards of bone left for the earth to hold
the way Julian held a hazelnut in her vision.
And wasn’t she shown in a clear light
that all flesh, all matter, is ever
cupped like a nut, a fruit, a seed in God’s
hand? Think of it: everything
seen and unseen, even the slow rot
at the edges of our days.
The nut, the nest, the father’s embrace— in this finely tuned chapbook, these are the something, the direction, beyond the verge.
Love At First Read
by Toni Van Dusen
(first printed in CALYX, 2010 - reprinted with permission)
PHOTOGRAPH WITH GIRLS: POEMS, Nancy Carol Moody. Traprock Books, 66 pages, $15 paper.
There are many reasons to buy and read Nancy Moody’s PHOTOGRAPH WITH GIRLS. The cover photo is a wonder—four girls (Moody’s mother among them) lying on a beach, bare-toed and laughing (the inspiration for the title poem). There are poems in traditional forms and at least one poem in a form of Moody’s own invention (“Roy’s Five and Dime”). The third little poem in the series “Three Poems” that begins the book sliced me open with these words:
Belovèd, nothing we could do here in this room,
on the soft of this flat and white elevation,
is so urgent as your cheekbones radiating moonlight,
your breath rising humid and transmutable. Please
don’t rouse while I warm my hands on the lamp
of your body. I want to study your contours
in this dark—me blind, you Braille.
The use of the almost Biblically old-fashioned Belovèd is risky and strikes the perfect tone for this delicate, yet powerful lyric. The rich language is pulled from the far corners of our lexicon—from rouse to raditating and transmutable.
Deliciously chewy language is a hallmark of Moody’s work. Listen to this description of a nest full of baby birds in “Nesting”: Mornings at sunup, the nest / is a tumult of appetite / and squawk.
That tumult of appetite informs this book: an intense desire for the lover as well as desire simply to be alive in this world. Moody’s passion is obvious in poems addressed to the belovèd, of course, but equally in an elegiac poem about an old dog (“Want”), and to city-bound nature, as in “First Mowing”: …the lawn’s / luminous fronds, dauntless stalks / succulent from immeasurable rain. / The holy mud they thrive in…. / How it stains, / oh the green glorious stain. This lush, unabashed language hearkens back to Hopkins and Whitman.
Moody is never afraid to step out of herself. In “The Subject Validates the Photograph,” the persona of Emily Dickinson emerges to confess to, no, to claim, a life quite different than the chaste one so often ascribed to her: Suitors were plentiful in my youth. / Tyrants and pirates—boarding the vessel, / fumbling for plunder. Later, though / only the one. The one was enough. This poem is both unique yet similar to Dickinson’s own. Here Moody’s Emily remembers a love affair that gave rise to a storm of poetry:
….Alfred and I
waging our own demonstrations of war
night upon night on kindled sheets,
daybreaks on blankets under sightless
skies, old Amherst never
once the wiser. The poems came—
the poems came—
To her credit, Moody does not attempt to mimic Dickinson’s capitalized nouns and clipped cadences. The tone is nineteenth century conversational, at times even a bit gossipy—describing friend Susan’s dreadful / mess with Austin, and, shall I say, / his sultry whore? My brother— / such a fool. It’s the way of men.
Moody is also unafraid to poke at difficult issues (especially women’s issues) with her stick. She gives voice to a murdered child in “Thirty Years Later: JonBènet Has Her Say.” The poem artfully, devastatingly exposes the rot at the heart of children’s beauty pageantry and the parents who deliver their daughters up to it: I will confess: I dreamed the spotlight—/ the illumined attention my one understanding / of the meaning of love.
In the sestina “Egyptair 990: Sestina for the 217,” Moody describes the horrifying crash and its aftermath. The first line is chilling: The plane’s dive was so steep Mohamed Gamal that for a small / moment Nama Mossad, the passengers would have been weightless. The names of some sixty dead are dropped into the poem’s lines as if engraved on a granite wall, and I can imagine two readers performing it, one intoning the names while the other reads the poem that surrounds the names.
“Commemoration: September 11, 2006” is Moody’s homage to the survivors of the September 11, 2001, attack, those who lost family and friends and, by extension, all of us.
In Pennsylvania a man
has rocked five years on his porch.
He will not rise to see
the long-scarred meadow.
Sixty months beyond
the five-sided building,
a star’s perfect center,
a woman still feels
her office walls crumble.
Two hundred sixty weeks:
the photos on the fences
have flecked into dust.
Eighteen hundred twenty-six days:
you who watched birds
soar from tower windows
know you were mistaken.
I can’t end this review without mentioning Moody’s humor—sardonic, ironic, but utterly good-hearted—that shines from all but the darkest pages of this book. My favorite, “March Madness,” describes a conversation between the poet and a friend, upon reading a newspaper item about a female high school basketball star:
My friend says, “You know
her father doesn’t have to worry
about the boys. That girl won’t fit
in the back seat of a car.”
I remind: “In small towns
they drive pick-ups.
PHOTOGRAPH WITH GIRLS is a book you will love at first read and continue to delight in again and again. Thanks to Traprock for publishing these trenchant, beautifully crafted poems.
The Matter and Manner of At This Distance, a review by by Erik Muller
Bette Lynch Husted. At This Distance. Wordcraft of Oregon, 2010, $14.
Bette Lynch Husted is another strong voice among Eastern Oregon poets published by David Memmott. At This Distance is her first full collection and thus deserves attention to its matter and manner.
As the jacket comments observe, here is a book about the high, dry two-thirds of Oregon. Husted collects her observations of animals and plants and the shapes of landscape. She includes the people, as well, so that indeed this is a Northwest poetry that meets criteria set down by George Venn in “Continuity in Northwest Literature.”
Venn observes that with H.L. Davis, Theodore Roethke, and William Stafford our region’s literature began naming the details of our spaces: flora and fauna, weather—pinned down as exactly as language is able. These poets could also balance interior and exterior landscapes in an attempt to answer what Venn considers abiding Northwest concerns, “Where are we?” and “How shall we live here?” Before these poets, Venn says, writers labored under an imported tradition that did not focus on specific locales or place-specific investigations.
Husted writes with a firm sense of both natural and social geography. Her travel and place poems provide vivid calendar shots:
Our towns, shying apart, fold into timbered shadows,
high desert light, the camouflage of sage.
--“At This Distance”
Yet place is home to people and their predicaments, for here is a region with its Native American past and present, with wildfire and the Iraq War, poison gas and tumbleweeds, solitude and family, daughter and mother, blue collar and white. In “Living Here,” Husted’s sensibility is welcoming:
To live out here, we have to love it all.
. . .
Not ten miles distant, nerve gas bunkers.
. . .
But older stories live here, give
away their ancient secrets, medicines to sing
us whole again.
Husted works toward both comprehensiveness and comprehension. Her ideal is Thought Woman, a variation of Emerson’s American Scholar, who is mother and Earth figure, derived from Native American wisdom tradition:
reaching out, reaching back
We carry stories underneath the skin . . .
Husted’s achievements are earned despite using a language that she finds elusive or intractable:
In what language can I, child of these invader
refugees, welcome you?
--“The Language of Home”
Older, I’ll be
old soon. (Language hesitates, glancing backward.)
Carried with this tide, I’m a child still learning
how to breathe . . .
--“The View From Here”
Husted’s manner of writing is apt for her concerns. She is forthright and competent. Perhaps too often description of places and narration of anecdotes carry the burden of her wisdom quest. There are perhaps more road poems than needed. Yet every poem succeeds. And some excel.
The most interesting poems depart from the fairly predictable entry points and development strategies and become imaginative re-shapings of Husted’s concerns. Along with the rich song of “Life Birds”’ and the fine use of refrain in “At Washington School,” the collection’s last poem, “Wingspan,” is remarkable for its weaving of three elements selected from Husted’s own land—an Indian tale, a Umatilla dance event, some cautions and riddles from various media, to create the rich fabric sampled here:
Dancers’ feather-fans lift high
carry prayer toward light
Touching a weaver finch nest—
“Watch for litter-fall
So it came about that when the Spring migration of swans began the next year, E-tsa-wis-no went aloft to join the flight—without a word of farewell to his family!
At This Distance is a strong addition to Oregon poetry books that initially signal an allegiance to place, then reveal that answering the questions posed by Venn requires more than a roadmap or county history. See Thomas Madden’s Lessons for Custer, Venn’s West of Paradise, and Pamela Steele’s Paper Bird, three other titles from Wordcraft of Oregon.
Poets and their readers are called to live by imagination, whose task in taking up such questions is to balance attention to external landscape with attention to internal landscape. That balance, as if by magic, reshapes both person and place.
NOTE: George Venn. Marking the Magic Circle: An Intimate Geography. (Corvallis, Oregon State University Press, 1987).