Joey McLeister, Star Tribune file photo
Blackbirds, desire and exuberant weirdness
- February 15, 2014 - 2:40 PM
“Slip,” by Cullen Bailey Burns (New Issues/WesternW Michigan University, 61 pages, $15)
“Of course we are beautiful in our remembering,” Cullen Bailey Burns writes in “Nostalgia.”
“The land’s / slope and give, the way pines also cling / to curve and inclination and somehow I am back / at desire.”
In her second book of poetry, a finalist this year for a Minnesota Book Award, Burns keeps circling back to the word “desire.” Nestled in carefully crafted images, ordered stanzas and controlled syntax, desire is an abstraction, not a hot-burning emotion.
Burns’ restraint can distance the reader, but also surprise with moments of realization.
“After the War” begins “Birds hold the moon up” and ends describing a marriage: “tumbled so, / bloodied, trailing a little light.” She writes about the beautiful birds and the broken marriage in the same measured syntax.
The speaker examines memories, trying to get details right as if they hold an elusive clue. She writes, “legs entwined in what?” or “he said / am? Was?”
A greater loss haunts these poems. Hinted at in images, it is a loss the speaker can approach only the edges of. It is the story of a girl “very far away, so far we must imagine her face.”
Burns writes: “We think to call out to her / in her field of sage and blossom, think / of no words to draw her back to our / wide open arms.”
Words cannot bring the girl back. Instead they offer beauty or “transmutation: water, sky, gold.”
“The Scent of Water,” by Patricia Barone (Blue Light Press, 81 pages, $15.95)
The New Agey cover of Patricia Barone’s second book of poetry doesn’t prepare the reader for Barone’s exuberant weirdness, dense vocabulary and seriously exciting work.
In this book, readers will discover words such as diapause, albumin, friable and subfusc. Barone describes the “conchiolin arks of escargot” and a “deasil wind.” In her playful homages to William Blake, she adds footnotes to define particularly archaic words.
Her poems are full of dirt, muck and slime. Her language — fecund and alive — matches her image of nature as “a maniac for sperm.” She writes of “new leaves, slightly red and sticky” and trees being “a smolder of yellow-green.” She acknowledges “ripeness turns to rot” and offers images of “squash with blossom-end rot” and “tomatoes infected with tumors of smut.”
These poems evoke the landscape around the Mississippi River. The river is awe-inspiring and unpredictable. Its drought can send the clay receding “like unhealthy gums from teeth” and its flood can cause rutabagas to bob “like buoys beneath our feet.”
Reading Barone’s poetry, one encounters greedily gathering words to create challenging and rich poetry featuring flowers and the mud they need to grow. It would be a shame if the cover prevents readers from discovering this heavyweight poet.
“Follow the Blackbirds,” by Gwen Nell Westerman
(Michigan State University Press, 72 pages, $16.95)
The epigraph to Gwen Nell Westerman is from the poet Rumi: “All language is a longing for home.” In Westerman’s writing, language does more than long for home, it preserves it for an exiled speaker who lives in Dakota and English.
The speaker’s grandmother urges, “Look for blackbirds … they always / go to water.” The recurring image of blackbirds signals an instinct to return to language and land, two elements that are tangled in Westerman’s work.
Westerman, who teaches in Mankato, writes in English and Dakota. At first the two languages seem at odds: “Our language / is like those prairie grasses / surviving … floods of English words.” She breaks her English text with blocks of Dakota, forcing the reader to look for the translation in the back of the book. One poem appears entirely in Dakota and is intriguingly not translated.
The poem is untranslated, but not inaccessible. Westerman includes a pronunciation guide to the Dakota alphabet, reminding the reader that it is a spoken and living language. This alphabet also gives readers access to the music, if not the content, of the words.
Language enacts healing in “Dakota Odowan,” a poem about the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. She writes of the unnamed refugees “forced to march … to a prison camp … an unknown number dying along the way.” The poem is written in columns so Dakota and English exist together on the page and the speaker’s “healed Dakota heart” sings of “returning home.”
Westerman has a faith in the possibilities of language. She urges, “Learn the alphabet / … and then you can / say anything.”
Elizabeth Hoover is assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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