Review by John Sibley Williams
By Paulann Petersen
Lost Horse Press
2013, 196 pp., $21.95
Before even opening Paulann Petersen’s latest collection, Understory, I was greeted with a haunting question: what is an “understory”? My mind raced with potential metaphors, each speaking directly to the core of all Petersen’s works—the unspoken, natural story writhing silently beneath her words. Her poems have always been a digging and an uncovering. And the words she carefully selects to uncover what lies beneath have always been a celebration of humanity and humanity’s part in the world.
But “understory” has another definition also: an underlying layer of vegetation; specifically: the vegetative layer and especially the trees and shrubs between the forest canopy and the ground cover. What better metaphor for Petersen’s poetry than that which grows between the highest, sky-raking trees and the hard earth below our feet? The one word title, so specific in its literal definition, provides the perfect perspective from which to approach this book—there will be glimpses of sparkling firmament and black soil, and the creations of our hands and the interpretations of our eyes will be what brings them together.
Featuring a vast array of natural observations and philosophical inquiries all rooted in acceptance and admiration, Understory’s 140 poems can be seen as Petersen’s magnum opus, her love song to the world, a trail of breadcrumbs for the endless external path that leads us ever closer to ourselves.
In “As if Each Breath Were the Last”, Petersen writes:
is a small seed of sky let go,
headed up—each outbound breath
less rich in what my blood
gleans from air, more laden with what
my lungs release.
There are outside forces in our lives, I read into this metaphor, that influence how we perceive ourselves. There is an innate unity of the other and the self, as primal and necessary as breath. We take in the world, translate it, experience it, make it our own, and the world is both changed and unchanged by our touch.
But all this, Petersen says, is something:
I have to give away.
Is this a personal statement or a universal rule of our existence? Does she mean a heart that remains open is always returning what it borrows or is it an unalterable state of humankind to be temporary? Further, does this temporariness imply that we end with our last breath or that in the unity of having lived we are in a sense eternal? In just one short poem I was left with beautifully answerable questions, each that speak to the nature of existence.
Although far reaching in its scope, each pondering in Understory is firmly rooted in tactile images and sensual perception. There are lush colors and monochromatic shadows. We are able to pick up each poem with our flesh and blood hands, understand it, and yet in understanding realize we have never been so far from knowing. Petersen’s world is not one of cement roads and concrete pillars. We are placed on a muddy, forested path, vast canopy overhead through which slices of sky illuminate our steps.
The interconnectedness of experience is perfectly captured in the collection’s first poem, “Daily Cosmology”:
A tree names itself Creation, and having done so,
reaches above, yet never breaks
the horizon’s line. Its trunk
makes a vertical road, way for a voyage
Petersen presents us with a self-created world, a self-striving world, capable of independent motivation and action, capable of naming itself. And what it creates is exactly what we endeavor to create—personal ascension. Both by body and by will, by merely existing and by force of resolve, nature becomes our mirror. Petersen speaks to our core beliefs, fears, and dreams by illustrating them in what we traditionally consider “the other”. And in doing so, Petersen makes a bold, quiet claim: there is no “other”.
Be a leaf, learn
to eat with your skin,
swallow sun’s rankness
wherever it strikes you.
So begins “Synesthesia”, a poem that speaks directly to the reader, pleading without desperation for a greater understanding of what it means to be one part of a greater whole. Yet, each part is necessary. The tapestry is not just outside us nor can it be defined exclusively from the inside. It bends to our will as we bend to its. And in bending together, nothing breaks.
Each poem in Understory is at heart a song. There is a musicality of language and of themes in every line. At times elegiac, at times celebratory, Petersen’s poems shine with an internal light reminiscent of Octavio Paz’ The Tree Within.
In “Exhalation”, Petersen says:
This alphabet, you say,
is spoken in the order
its sounds come from the body.
Petersen’s introspection is dazzlingly complex. The harmony she exposes in the human elements—body, breath, song, and creation—are so intertwined with natural elements that it’s impossible to clearly delineate where one begins and ends. Is Petersen implying that nothing really ends? Is she making a subtle case for the arbitrariness of walls? The poems never leave us with easy answers. They are paths we must choose to walk on our own terms, toward whatever destination, and it’s my belief that Petersen seeks less the destination than the journey, less the answers than their questions. In fact, I’d argue, she’s not even demanding of us specific questions but more a change in our thought process. She merely asks us to remain open and inquisitive. She reminds us over and again through her grand embrace of darkness and light that the world is interactive, that it exists without us and for us.
In “Letters Toward the End”, she connects this vast, circular, questioning world to her own writing process:
I could write a hundred messages more
each ending with the same line
It is up to each of us, in reading Understory, to figure out that last line for ourselves.
John Sibley Williams is the author of Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013) and six poetry chapbooks. He is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award, and finalist for the Pushcart, Rumi, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review, co-director of the Walt Whitman 150 project, and Marketing Director of Inkwater Press. A few previous publishing credits include: Third Coast, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Evansville Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
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From Understory: Poems by Paulann Petersen — Letterpress-printed Broadside of Danae Recalls Her Undoing
Letterpress printed on Lana Royal paper using hand-set type: VanDijck (title & body), Centaur (drop-cap), and Bembo (colophon). Ornament is hand-set as well. Designed and printed by Carla Girard, Mercuria Press. Each copy is hand-printed, numbered and signed. Edition of 75 signed and numbered copies.
Shipping is $3.50 anywhere in the U.S. Carla is willing to deliver broadsides to you if you live within Portland. (Standard discount for resellers and institutions is 20%, negotiable.) 10” x 14.5” / $25
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.Kelly Eastlund is a member of OPA, Lane Literary Guild, and the Red Sofa Poets. Her poems have appeared in several journals, including Shot Glass Journal, Wild Goose Poetry Review, andThe Whistling Fire. She lives in Springfield, Oregon, with her husband and two dogs.
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).