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.

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