January 19, 2014

A Thresher of Dust and Dreams: A Review of Miriam Bird Greenberg's All Night in the New Country by Mindy Kronenberg

cover credit: Sixteen Rivers Press
A Thresher of Dust and Dreams in the Promised Land

All Night in the New Country
Miriam Bird Greenberg
Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013

Review by Mindy Kronenberg

Miriam Bird Greenberg’s disturbing, recent collection of twenty-three poems chronicle episodes of a future America driven by a desperate migration. In a time of ecologic and social collapse, citizens move to survive, congregate, and keep madness and carnage at bay. As one reads through each poem, there are echoes of other cautionary tales of environmental disaster and human conceit—The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Road by Cormac McCarthy—and the uneasy reminder of historic migrations to stake claim to the great potential of this vast country.

The first poem, “Before the World Went to Hell,” sets the stage for this dismantled realm, and we are introduced to the early stages of pending disaster (“…people theorized the earth’s orbit / was off-kilter, time had stopped moving right,…”) in an uncomfortable juxtaposition of the frightening with the poetic (“My sweetheart steamed a pot of wild mustard flowers / by the roadside, rain sizzling on the lid…”). This cleverly keeps us off balance as we travel through these pages, creating a longing for the familiar or fabled past, clinging to old gallantry and social convention—a belief in empowered heroes and the guidance of ancestral ghosts—even as the world around us is dying. In “All Night in the New Country,” there is the pain of loss of legacy and self, “…it is like a body walking next to you in the night, ghost / of the lost one keeping you / company, or only your own grief stumbling / beside you in the darkness.”

This tour of deteriorating Americana emerges in scenes of surprisingly casual violence within a backdrop fit for Normal Rockwell. For example, in “I Passed Three Girls Killing a Goat,” Greenberg writes:
I passed three girls killing a goat, shotgun
leaned up against a tree and the entrails
spilling into a coil on the ground. It was hooked
between the tendons of its back legs
to a high branch that gently creaked
like a dry hinge busybody aunties wouldn’t oil.
Or these haunting lines, from “Remember:”
Remember the ruined caravan
we approached at dusk where boys lolling on the lip of the well
idly sent three bursts of bullets

into the air, neither welcome
nor threat? Remember, one told us of another who’d fallen
into that same well,

treading water for three days
and calling like a baby bird for its mother. Only
they didn’t say it like that. …
Death is harvested more than food or quarry stone; nature teases the promise of bounty amidst rot. In “Night Trembled All Around Me,” we are told “But what you really had to watch for / were pits dug in the ground in empty places.” We’re told:
Watch carefully
when the moon is at this angle; people
go out to the woods (no—are sent) with shovels.
Fallen fruit sweetening the air, pungent
where saplings will sprout from the stones
in spring; but the pits they are digging
are meant         for a different thing.
There is a combination of beauty and terror in each poem, bearing witness to the ravages of the landscape yet clinging to the persistence of the human spirit. They compose a journey for survival through a landscape of dying dreams and create a disjointed tension as we learn in uneasy and evocative stages how things fall apart.

January 5, 2014

Meandering Through Bear Country: A Review of Katherine Ayres’s Bear Season: A Journey into Ursidae by R. A. Voss

Cover credit: Autumn House Press
Bear Season: A Journey into Ursidae by Katherine Ayres
Autumn House Press (2013)

Reviewed by R. A. Voss

Katherine Ayres was already enamored by the legendary world of bears when an encounter with one—coupled with intellectual curiosity—turned an attraction into an obsessive crush. The result is Bear Season: A Journey into Ursidae, a collection of essays that come from her heart and conscience regarding the myriad ways mankind and bear-kind have intersected across time. Intriguing epigraphs preface fascinating explorations of the bear-mystique throughout world history.

In the opening piece, “Protection,” the author notes how the series derived from a visit by a black bear outside her residence in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. When she sees the bear roaming her property, she initially registers it as trespassing. On further contemplation, she recognizes the behavior as territory-marking, which signals the bear declaring ownership and leads Ayres to speculate whether the visitor has caught her scent and “wonders who and why.” Alone in her new home, as the bear claims the yard, Ayres marks the house. Poetically, she shares how she rolls her “loneliness from paint cans onto drab walls, making them glow—lemon sorbet, rose parade.

As she meanders deeper into the bear’s sphere, she probes the incongruity of laws established to shield bears against human predation, observing that:
“We humans protect these large, magnificent giants of the forest so we’ll have more of them to hunt and kill” (5).
Such topical revelations ponder the intricacies of how to determine the bear population a territory can support while considering farmers, residents, hunters, and wildlife management agencies. A gruesome example of how parties clash over these issues occurred on December 9, 2013, when an 18-year-old Pennsylvanian-woman was mauled by a mother bear during a deer-hunting expedition. While recovering from her wounds in the hospital, the traumatized woman received a letter from a representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The official suggested that the woman discontinue hunting and consider the terror that animals experience at the hands of hunters. The incident underscores the relevance of Ayres’s book in the ongoing conversation.

As the essays unfold, Ayres delves into the disjunction between people’s admiration for bears and cruelty against them—amidst images of cuddly bears and the fierce reality of mammals in their normal environment. This separation is brilliantly illuminated by her recounting of how Teddy Bears were created after a political cartoon satirized an event that was by turns terrible and noble. She writes:
“President Theodore Roosevelt had been on a hunting expedition, but had not shot a bear. Companions on the trip chased a bear, hounded it, exhausted it and tied it to a tree. When they showed it to Roosevelt, he refused to shoot such a beleaguered creature” (28).
The story inspired a toy manufacturer to produce Teddy Bears to commemorate Roosevelt’s presidential pardoning of the badgered beast. Its inclusion reveals Ayres’s ability to parallel external events with internal scrutiny of the concerns that plague these iconic animals. Covering subjects as diverse as dancing bears, endangered species, bear stock markets, and Russian political bears, she seeks answers to the central question: How can people and bears coexist harmoniously? Ayres’s appreciation for the natural world inspires every page as she examines the ecological, global, and personal—searching for the bear’s-eye view without slipping into anthropomorphism.

In “The Wise Man,” Ayres discusses the merits of labeling while pointing to the dangers of stereotyping and value judgments. Even the scientific nomenclature for bears—Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Carnivora, Ursidae, Ursus, and Ursus americanus—becomes something thoughtful and accessible through Ayres’s uplifting prose:
“I realize that I’m drawn to these names—to their scientific accuracy and their musicality. Writers are lovers of words after all—connoisseurs of sound and meaning transcribed into symbol” (24).
In some essays, a light-hearted approach balances the serious tone imparted by others, like in “Bear Etiquette” when she compares the “bare etiquette” practiced by nudists—“One doesn’t stare. One doesn’t walk too close or… touch by accident.”—to the appropriate “protocol when a bear has come into sight.” 

“Fake Fur” reviews the species of bears that currently prowl the planet. From the common brown bear to the South American mountains’ little known speckled bears, which are the only bears to roam the southern hemisphere, she informs readers about survival risk factors like habitat loss from shrinking forests and climate change, noting that though black bear numbers are increasing:
“The Sun bears, Sloth bears, Spectacled bears and Asian blacks…, also face human poaching and predation for food, folk medicine, and sport hunting, as well as capture to secure animals for performing, fighting and even as pets.  As a species, we humans have a very mixed record of living respectfully with our Ursidae neighbors” (40).
The woe worsens in “Unbearable,” which provokes stomach-turning outrage and a wilderness of misery due to images of bears suffering immense cruelty that linger after one finishes the read: bear baiting, Russian bears playing hockey in ice skates, and circus bears performing unnatural acts. And “In Sickness and in Health” awakens readers to the procedure of bear milking—bile extraction for homeopathic medicinal treatments. Ayres explains:
“Somewhere between eight and ten thousand live bears are currently being farmed in Asia for the production of bile. These bears are obtained as cubs, then caged in enclosures so small that an adult bear cannot fully stand or extend its body. The caged bears have injuries to their heads and faces, and broken teeth from trying to bite through the bars to escape” (154-155).
This deplorable practice continues despite the fact that the efficacy of using bile for the treatment of such ailments as hemorrhoids, fevers and alcohol over-indulgence has never been substantiated.

Throughout this all-encompassing survey of bears, Ayres’s respect and affection for them is evident. Facts are plentiful—deftly interspersed with answers dispensed at the exact instant questions arise in readers’ minds. By journey’s end, having used research, folklore and anecdotes the author accomplishes her task of raising awareness while creating an entertaining, absorbing, and well-formed portrait of these impressive creatures.