Cascade-Siskiyou: Poems by Pepper Trail, reviewed by Alan Contreras

Painted Thrush Press, 2015, 65 pages, $12

ISBN 978-1508484356

Available via Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Cascade-Siskiyou-Poems-Pepper-Trail/dp/150848435X

The Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon and northern California are what writers of stories of the west, both historic and fictional, call “rough country.” It is in fact about as rough as anyone might ask for in the lower 48 states, particularly in the steep tangled chasms of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness at the western end of the complex. The whole region has in recent years become a land in transition as its history of winter snows is now matched by summer fires of brutal proportions.

 

This is the home range, if you will, of Pepper Trail, a forensic biologist and one of the nation’s experts on the identification of feathers. It is this country of a thousand borders, this land of stony pockets, hard-faced shrubbery, and random defensive trees, that he inhabits with such poems as “The Border,” which ends with the stanza:

 

      In this world of solid things

      Of wood and stone, rough ground

      And green enduring leaves

      My fingers reach, reach past the real

      Forever seek the border

      Crossed, again and again

      But never found.

 

Like every poem in this highly local collection, “The Border” is linked to a specific site, Soda Mountain. The entire collection was written on-site and there is a definite sense of immediate experience and hands-on knowledge in most of them.

 

The great poet of human experience J. D. McClatchy once wrote that the natural world is an “uncongenial” source for poetic inspiration. Setting aside the fact that nature is, as Gary Snyder put it, home, not a foreign place, I can’t help but doubt whether congeniality makes for the best poetic experience. This collection stands for the primacy of what is rooted in the ground, as does the work of Pattiann Rogers, Mary Oliver, Loren Eiseley, and others.

 

Some poets assemble poems with some structural similarity in order to create the theme of a collection. Trail has instead gathered poems with a commonality of place, so we go from a set of seasonal haiku to longer ruminations on winter survival, human passage, the movements of deer. The genuineness of the poet’s connection to place is obvious in “Haiku – Winter,” which perfectly describes the way kinglets move through the forest:

 

      A drift of kinglets

      Passes, leaves behind only

      Sound of falling snow.

 

This is knowledge gained from the forest, not read in a book somewhere. There are few birds in the montane forest in winter – there are few human observers, either. There is also in this collection a profound sense of the seasons, necessary for the haiku and densely informative in other poems as well, such as “The Berry Woods”:

 

      How secret and alive, the berry-woods

      All song stilled, the boasting season done

      Nothing to be heard but murmurs and calls

      Bursts of flutter, birds lost within the leaves

      Swallowing the pin-cherries, bright as rubies

      The Oregon grapes, hard and full of spice

      The manzanitas, their little apples sweet

      Today, the world balances dark and light

      The agitations of spring long past

      Summer’s full schedule forgotten

      This autumn work is simply gathering

      Feasting, growing fat beneath the feathers

      Preparing to fly before the cold

      Before winter opens its empty hands.

 

Let’s unpack this characteristic Trail poem and see what’s in it. First, it is profoundly regional in the sense that the presence of Oregon grape and manzanita in the same place breathes of the collision-space of the moister climate of the coastal northwest with the more sere shrub-forests of California. Then it is about as seasonal as a poem can be, clearly written on or near the autumnal equinox (set forth where it should be, halfway through the poem). We digest (pardon the expression) an evocatively restated outline of recent seasons.

 

Then the poem, which has to this point been an amiable, detail-rich meander on a ridgeline filled with fruit-nibbling birds, ends with the oxygen-sucking hammer fall of what winter really means in the high country: death. This bold tonal shift in the last line changes the meaning of every previous word: all this cheerful chewing is not a casual avian picnic. It is a desperate bid for continued life by way of energy-hungry migration.

 

There is some variation in craft and weight among these poems, but the best among them are very good indeed. A review should not reveal all the goodies, of course, as readers should read the real thing, but I’ll mention “False Hellebore,” “To a Young Lizard,” and “Late Riders” as among the most fully realized and thoroughly carved of the collection.

 

The lizard poem is a reptilian cognate of “The Berry Woods,” but more tightly focused and directive throughout, as though Trail is urging the lizard to get into a safe hole pretty quickly. False hellebore and “real” hellebore get a mutual apology and a taxonomic dusting-off in what is perhaps the best poem in the collection. “Late Riders” is one of the last poems in the book and is, in truth, the natural closer for the collection because the sun descends and the human observers, having seen all the day permits, feel their way home in darkness. Yet, the concluding poem, “Juniper Years,” makes its own claim, concluding:

 

      Time enough to accomplish our own perfection

      To grow, to express in the shape of our lives

      The beauty of our afflictions

      The worth of all the time there is.

 

I am told that Pepper Trail was named the official poet laureate of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in 2013. And why not?

 

 

Reviewer’s Bio

 

Alan Contreras is author of the poetry collections Night Crossing and Firewand. His collection In the Time of the Queen will appear in 2018. He is co-editor of Birds of Oregon (OSU Press 2003), author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding The American West (OSU Press 2009), Northwest Birds in Winter (OSU Press 1997), State Authorization of Colleges and Universities and other titles. He is editing a collection of essays about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and will soon begin work on a history of Oregon ornithology. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Eugene.

Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key by Kelly Terwilliger, reviewed by Anita Sullivan

Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key by Kelly Terwilliger

Airlie Press, Portland, OR
ISBN-13 978-0989579964
2017, 79 pp., $16.00

Reviewed by Anita Sullivan

When you pick up a copy of this remarkable book, stop! Look at the cover – really look at it. Across the bottom rests a narrow strip of seashore in vivid blues, whites and browns. Above that, sky takes up the rest of the space. The ratio of sky to seashore is 5 to 1, which may resonate slightly in your vision as a very satisfying relationship. Yet the placidity of this image is interrupted near the top of the page by an odd little island with some old-fashioned people on it who seem to have no idea their small piece of ground has been detached from its own world and inserted into another one. Two distinct realities inhabiting a single place. Already, you might feel the center of your forehead humming with anticipation.

Then you read the title words: Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key. And the humming grows louder. If you squint a little and move the words around in your mind, you may recognize them as similar to an Anglo-Saxon kenning – an ancient word puzzle where certain words can be mixed and matched in ways that allow them to strike sparks off one another and reveal hidden meanings. For example:

king     dragon
hall      cave

  1. The king is a hall-dragon.
  2. The dragon is a cave-king.
  3. The hall is the king’s cave.
  4. The cave is the dragon’s hall.

Such simple word-sets formed the underlying structure of Anglo-Saxon riddles. Although the four words in Terwilliger’s title don’t fall neatly into this particular pattern, I feel them making a close quadrille with one another: A riddle can be a key, a fish-hook can be a thorn; a riddle can hook you, a key can pierce your heart. Thorn and Fish Hook stand between Riddle and its Key.

Throughout the book, true to the cover’s promise, these and other words shape-shift into one another in ways that are always surprising, but always completely appropriate to the underlying pattern the original magic formula has ordained.

The opening section, “Air” is also about water, about breathing and folding, taking in and letting out, jumping into. Entire poems breathe in as one thing, breathe out as another as when one sound shifts in a word/and summons another.

In “Handkerchief” the poet remembers a father, who sneezed and carried/this crumpled peony in his pocket.

Folding her father’s handkerchiefs, warm from the dryer, clinging together/like pages of a fragile book, she goes back to the flower image as she folds

                                  soft square
halving and halving. What if I’d just kept going?
Blossoms unblooming, reversing
to a single point
with everything inside them.

In “Night Song” she feels her way into the longing of the owl’s call:

Not sorrow, but the overflow
of wanting to live, to break open
all those feathers into night …

The second section, “Body,” intensifies the theme of falling apart and coming back together to live again (which recalls the ancient enactment of death by dismemberment and burial as a rite of spiritual renewal).

The first poem begins big – imagining how a whale might die at sea:

turning softly within
to something like cream, until
the skin splits, the rest
falls away.

The poet then brings the whale body onto shore.

What then, strange coat. . . .
A hill of skin
enough to hide a house.

But the poem does not end there: a man rides down the beach on a horse; a group of people stand around the carcass, waiting for him. Where is the whale? Here on the sand, yes, but at the same time forever out at sea:

             bones still falling.
I’m sure of it. Slipped from the skin
they descend through the sea’s green rooms …

Later in the section, in “Gift Horse,” the horse itself is now dead on the beach, like an old sail blown in.

The poet, looking at the horse, feels herself changing into an animal: I begin to wear fur. I feel hairs on my skin,/between my teeth, in every breath.

Half animal now, she reaches into the horse’s mouth, and behind the tongue/ that isn’t there, something jiggles./Riddle, fish hook, thorn, key –

Two more observations about this amazingly coherent and luminous book:

First, at the core of all the poems, whether there are people in them or not, is a steadfast and palpable love. The poet’s father is sometimes directly present, as are her two sons, and once they have been introduced, you realize they are, in some sense, inhabiting every poem. “Beyond Swans” begins

My friend once ate a swan,
the only thing she was ashamed to admit
she’d gladly do again.

And the poem, after immersing itself fully into the magnificence of this bird as cloud god, with its intimacy of weight, slips easily into a memory of the poet being tenderly carried as a sleeping child, up from the beach at night by her father,

He climbed up and over the rocks,
            and my body felt loose and safe.

After which, turning back to the swan, she says

This is how I’d carry her
the one-who-ate-a-swan, who probably
never will again, whose burdens now
have changed their shapes, as burdens do.

Second, in my own reading of poetry, I especially look out for how much distance a poet is able to maintain between what she is trying to say, and what she actually ends up saying. If this distance is too close, the poem may feel “controlled,” and tend to be merely descriptive or informational. If the distance is too wide, the poem risks veering off into blind alleys of personal symbols or getting trapped in a kind of feedback loop of seductive images or sounds that have detached themselves from actual experience. In Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key, I believe Kelly Terwilliger has managed – partly due perhaps to her long experience as a professional storyteller – to maintain a perfect distance, thus allowing The Mystery to be doing its essential work to keep the poems honest, beautiful, and strange.

 

Reviewer’s Bio:

Anita Sullivan is a poet and essayist who has been part of Oregon’s literary community for 35 years. Information about her work can be found at www.anitasullivan.org

 

No Acute Distress by Jennifer Richter, reviewed by Tiah Lindner Raphael

No Acute Distress by Jennifer Richter

Southern Illinois University Press
ISBN-13 #978-0809334827
2016, 67 pp, $15.95
Author website: www.jenniferrichterpoet.com

Reviewed by Tiah Lindner Raphael

From Disease to Ease: Transforming Pain into Resilience

Jennifer Richter’s second full-length collection, No Acute Distress, was published in 2016 by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Editor’s Selection. Following her first collection, Threshold, which won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Open Competition, No Acute Distress centers around family, un/health, chronic disease, and the way in which these forces shape identity. The collection follows a single speaker in an arc of transformation, looking for the universal through the lens of intensely personal – and physical – experiences.

Structurally, the book is divided into sections  – “Family History,” “Admission,” “Examination,” “Complications,” “Release” – mirroring the inpatient intake and treatment process. Medical terminology is explored in all its surrealism from the title itself to PICC lines, from visual pain scales to a list that highlights the bizarre naming of pharmaceuticals:

                I’ve tried Depakote, Sinequan,
Zomig, Xanax, Toradol: fuck you. Fuck
your side effects, your scripts fanned out then dealt
to me for years. And Midrin, Flexeril,
Vicodin, Axert, Celebrex, Frova
that hooked me – what the fuck?
                        – “Eighteen Seconds”

Throughout the collection, the body is alternately cataloged with clinical efficiency or given the extreme tenderness of an intimate or caregiver, treating language-lovers to a subtle lexicon that includes femurs, veins, spines, and the wild labor of birth. In the long poem “Eighteen Seconds,” Richter writes, My body’s dragging like a plastic sack /of batteries: they’re dead or not, can’t tell.

Indeed, the body plays such a central role in No Acute Distress because Richter uses it as both a vehicle for action and agency and as a limiting force: Lately I feel my body’s felt docked, as in: all aboard (“I’m Used to Feeling Like I’m Moving Even When I’m Still”). The plurality of strength and weakness, vulnerability and ferocity, is particularly noticeable in Richter’s poems about children. For example in “My Daughter Brings Home Bones,” she writes about the bright future of a young daughter on the cusp:

                               In this next decade, she’ll go: head off like
today, take into her arms all she’s curious about. Her line of bones
makes an arrow; sun lights them like a sign.

In contrast, in “My Boy, My Body: When I Type I Always Mix Them Up,” Richter describes a sick child and the pain of parental guilt.

                                                             The surgeon finally
emerges with photos: the shadowed terrain inside my son like a
moonscape if the moon were smooth. He slides a pen from his
pocket. I fidget like I’m starved. With the tip he traces exactly
where my body, when I made Luke’s, made it wrong.

The further one gets into No Acute Distress, the more one notes the role of pain, in both its physical and emotional manifestations. In these poems, Richter asks difficult questions about the nature of pain, how it shapes the individual and whether or not that pain brings people closer in shared experience or pushes them toward isolation. In “My Own Blood,” the speaker discusses her mother’s ill health, Our pain’s the same, behind one eye. She knows /some studies trace mine back to her.       

As she explores the experience of disease, one’s own and that of others, Richter creates a collection permeated with a specific sense of unease, even in times of relative wellness: I’m fine if you mean satisfactory (“Eighteen Seconds”). However, by the final section of the collection, “Release,” the tone of the poems changes towards one of transformation. In the poem “Imagine,” the speaker mourns what has been lost in her journey:

                                                                              Our
Children’s mouths sigh open in the dark. They’re not surprised:
The healer touched me, and it worked. They’ve seen magicians –
Beneath the sheet that’s pulled away, something’s always gone.                                                            

However, in the next poem, “Synesthesia: The Way I See It,” the speaker shows herself to be in a place of more peaceful acceptance: I’m better now;/Still trying to make sense of everything. By the final poem, “No Joke,” Richter’s speaker reflects on her transformation and pauses in a state of gratitude: Even the quality of the light is new. I’ve come so far.     

Readers, too, will find themselves grateful for the experience of sitting with Richter’s rich poems. Illness is a universal experience and, shaped by Richter’s deft hand, one that gives readers a way into the most complex questions about body, being, and selfhood.

 

Reviewer’s Bio:

Tiah Lindner Raphael is an obsessive gardener and writer living in Portland, Oregon. A frequent volunteer with the journal VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions, her poems have most recently appeared in Cloudbank, Pretty Owl Poetry and Spoon River Poetry Review.