POETRY: Poems that glow and shimmer

  • Article by: ELIZABETH HOOVER , SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: June 23, 2012 - 1:50 PM

"Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems," by Heid Erdrich; "Sky Thick With Fireflies," by Ethna McKiernan; and "Book of Fire," by Cary Waterman.

"Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems," by Heid E. Erdrich (The University of Arizona Press, 203 pages, $16.95)

In this capacious book, Erdrich draws a through-line from the ancient to the contemporary world with DNA. For Erdrich, DNA contains messages both biological and spiritual.

"Cell Traffic" gathers her most recent poems with selections from her three previous volumes -- a body of work so various it's difficult to categorize. It's too pedestrian to say she "writes about" biology, history, spirituality, motherhood and her heritage as Ojibwe Indian and German American. She doesn't write about these subjects as much as she uses them to create a complex field of meaning across which her marvelous intelligence travels.

The book's title comes from the scientific term describing how genetic material passes between the fetus and the mother -- resulting in "microchimerism," or the presence of cells within our bodies that are not genetically our own.

These scientific concepts are concretized in Erdrich's intimate poems. She writes:

"Nub of human, / shell pink fingernail, / whether you live / or all unformed / leave her body / she will never / be without you."

Her poems themselves are chimeric, grafting the scientific, historic, personal and spiritual. In "Upon Hearing of the Mormon DNA Collection," she knits a William Blake line ("Little Lamb, who made thee?") into a haunting poem about an underground bunker of stored DNA: "Even now our samples / glimmer in the dim vaults, / grow lighter by a shade, / whiten like unto Little Lambs / ready to enter heaven."

Her poems are aware of and welcome the contemporary. In one, a pop-up ad on her e-mail reading "Native American DNA -- What Tribe Are You?" raises questions about who owns the speaker's DNA, given it took her ancestors "millennia to perfect."

The book contains uncollected prose poems of idiosyncratic parables and personal histories. These include "translations" of her poems into Ojibwe two different ways and then back into English. The process can seem opaque, but the originals are beautiful on their own. In "How We Walk," the speaker says of her husband: "His eye saves me, brings me beauty daily, spots the tracks, the eggshell, the eagle as it passes, something of wonder every day."

Poems from "National Monuments," for which she won a 2009 Minnesota Book Award, grapple with the controversy over human remains with humor and emotional resonance. "The Mother Tongue" turns over and over ideas of motherhood and language preservation. Finally, "Fishing for Myth" contains straightforward poems dealing more explicitly with American Indian identity.

Or as straightforward as Erdrich gets. She heeds the call of Emily Dickinson to "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." Everything Erdrich encounters seems to filter through her unique perspective and into her poetry.

For example, she "spoofs" the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Acts: "If an object calls for its mother, / boil water and immediately swaddle it." Maybe a "spoof," but these lines also say something about the sacred: Though ancient, it is a living and evolving thing.

Erdrich will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.

"Sky Thick With Fireflies," Ethna McKiernan (Salmon Poetry, 101 Pages, $21.95)

'Sky Thick With Fireflies" begins with the poet laboring in her kitchen where her "mother's ghost sings / as she kneads her soda bread, and right here / is the mortar of poetry, the plain materials of love."

To love, McKiernan adds memory, loss and the lyric's commitment to interiority and compression.

As lyric dictates, her poems expand single moments -- waiting for her sons out past curfew, seeing a ladybug or remembering her father's death -- with layers of descriptive language.

In the first section, McKiernan writes about giving up a child for adoption. Thick with despair, these poems circle a seemingly inescapable grief:

"The imprint of his infant head / upon her shoulder like a burn / that still scalds a decade later."

The strongest poems in the collection focus on her work with the homeless. She writes with grace about this "tribe we will not see." It's a tribe that struggles with addiction, bundles children off to school and wakes before dawn to get work.

In "Loss: An Inventory in Chorus," she writes in the voice of a homeless individual:

"Some nights I feel I've lost the dead, / my mother who would come to me in dreams, / her long black hair braided with softest feathers ... / Gone now, the dreams / bow to the streets, our future king."

In this book, McKiernan demonstrates the lyric can do more than chronicle personal grief. It can also slow the attention of readers, willing them to witness the moment of another's life.

"Book of Fire," by Cary Waterman (Nodin Press, 99 pages, $16)

In "Book of Fire," Cary Waterman presents the reader with lavish -- even decadent -- language that's as fecund and various as the landscapes she describes.

Poems are bursting with "nubbins of raspberries," "wild pink thyme" and "clematis with its purple face."

Her language is surprising, lovely and refreshingly full. A woman "arched her leg / like a question mark" as she mounted a motorcycle, "fallen lilies collapsed / like ladies in pink ball gowns," and a man swimming with his lover "lifts and cradles her / as if she were a delicate parcel of pastry / wrapped and tied with string."

The section about the myth of Persephone gives Waterman an opportunity for lush descriptions of spring. In addition, she imbues her Persephone with a rich inner life.

"Suddenly, she knows / how her ego separates her / from the ladybug on the skin of the kayak / and from her own death."

Surprisingly, the language in poems on her Iceland travels is less vivid. But when she tackles the subject of war, her writing is both stunning and disturbing. "Dream of the Vietnamese Orphans" tells of an American plane that crashed during an airlift:

"We try to fix our mistakes but they stretch out behind us / like phosphorus. Those babies lifted up on fumes, / jet fuel burning behind them, / we would take them home ... / the pool of their mother's blood / counting for nothing. "

Waterman is deft enough that the serious themes of her poem -- memory, responsibility, gratitude -- aren't swallowed in the beautiful language. Instead she writes poems of both emotional and intellectual heft.

Elizabeth Hoover is a poet in Pennsylvania.

  • related content

  • "Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems," by Heid E. Erdrich

  • Cary Waterman

  • "Book of Fire," by Cary Waterman

  • "Sky Thick with Fireflies," Ethna McKiernan

  • Heid Erdrich.

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