February 23, 2014

The Grass Was the Country: A Review of Sandy Longhorn’s The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Jacar Press

The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths by Sandy Longhorn
Jacar Press, 2013

Review by Angele Ellis

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. ―Willa Cather, My Antonia

In her second full-length collection (winner of the Jacar Press 2013 Full Length Book Contest), Sandy Longhorn reanimates Cather’s prairie—a fierce, enchanted landscape that becomes as fully realized as the people who inhabit, fight, and succumb to it. Like the dreamy and defiant girls of her fairy tales and myths, Longhorn’s prairie—an anthropomorphic presence, half-human, half-monster—seems to be running, as in “Fairy Tales for Girls in Love with Fire”:
…The horizon
caught fire and the eldest girl fell
for the smell of smoke, craved the heat
of flame and ember. Every adult tried
to hold her back from running toward
the leaping fervor… (38)
All four elements (fire, earth, wind, and water) contribute to the seduction and destruction of Longhorn’s yearning “girls,” in the throes of adolescent angst intensified by the isolation of Longhorn’s personified prairie, and by the patriarchs and matriarchs who abide by its harsh rules. In “Cautionary Tale for Girls Kept Underground in Summer,” a girl abandoned in a “clammy” basement by parents who “had lives to live / in the heat above the ground” becomes part of the earth itself:
…curled in upon herself, her fingers digging, digging
at the crack until she could slip her hands closer
to the dirt. They found her there, immovable,

her limbs tangled in the dense bed of roots, her speech
the foreign tongue of all things planted. (2)
And in “Fairy Tale for Girls Enthralled by the Storm,” “a girl who loved the prairie wind,” and whose father is “unnerved / by the way she smiled like a woman” bides her time until a season of tornadoes provides her with an otherworldly means of escape:
 …One night she slipped from bed and walked
into the rain. She took her place on that slight rise,

called out, was ready to be lifted and transformed. (35)
Longhorn’s precise language, alliterative lyricism, and masterful use of rhyme schemes ground her poems, making their fantastic endings both plausible and moving. Another technique that Longhorn uses brilliantly is the repetition of certain words in her titles and poems, including fairy, tale, cautionary, map, cartography, saint, girl(s). This repetition draws the reader into Longhorn’s spell—as when reading a book of fairy tales—transforming Longhorn’s stories into the reader’s.

Perhaps no story is complete without blood, and without the bloodlines that connect us to the artist’s past, as well as to our own. In “Midwest Nursery Tales,” a fox kills a girl who wanders heedlessly into a ripe field of alfalfa:
…all they found
were her shoes and a patch of blood-red

poppies. Each year those flowers bloomed
no matter how deeply they tilled the soil. (5)
In “It Matters, the Kind of Wound,” “poppies & chilies” bloom from a soil whose accumulated blood “…seeps and stains, marking a new / navigational point—a compass rose, / useless to the one who bled it.” (9)

Bloodlines become particularly poignant in the last of this book’s four sections, “Cartography as Elegy,” which moves from feminist mythmaking to speak more directly of life and death. Armed with “…a map of my home well folded, / creased along gossamer bloodlines” (“Autobiography as Cartography”) (53), Longhorn explores her family history. Throughout “In the Delicate Branches,” she traces her grandmother and mother’s decline:

            …Strong bones and a healthy body
can only take a person so far. At some point the heart
has to do its own bidding. At some point you
have to admit that the wolf guards the door. (55)
The mortality of her elders leads the poet to the realization that she may be the last branch of her family tree, in “Choosing Not to Bear”:
…Now, as the hourglass of my womb empties,
I refuse to turn
the moonlight sands
on end again…
yet my empty womb is a bursting star…

                      Meanwhile, my mother
lines her life with the silver and gold
            of her last,
                                  her starburst daughter… (56)
As Willa Cather’s “starburst daughter[s]” (in Longhorn’s phrase) rise from the prairie waves to seek and find personal and professional freedom—or in some cases, to be tragically pulled under—so do Sandy Longhorn’s. As Cather makes her “running” prairie the archetypical American heartland, reaching far beyond regionalism to capture the imagination and sympathy of a wide audience, so does Sandy Longhorn in The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. 

February 2, 2014

Searching for Permanence: A Review of Jacar Press's What Matters by Marc Sheehan

cover credit: Jacar Press
What Matters
Jacar Press, 2013

Reviewed by Marc Sheehan

Jacar Press set out to bring together poets to speak about topics core to their being—a truly admirable task. Because if poets can’t address what matters, why spend the time forging one hundred well-crafted poems?
It’s a high bar to set, and What Matters largely succeeds in clearing that bar. 

Almost all of the writers, according to their bios, have some connection to the South, and particularly to North Carolina, Jacar Press’s home state. Despite that, What Matters does not, for the most part, read as a collection of southern poems. However, some of its best poems deal with race, an issue by no means exclusively southern but one that is inescapably associated with the notion of “southerness.”
For example, in her very fine poem about the legacy of Emmett Till, “Perpetua Holdings Inc.,” Rebecca Black writes:

                        I wanted to stop writing about the South,
                        but then the mother possum and her babies skittered
                        out of the casket lined with shredded satin, its glass lid heavy

                        and still unbroken—Emmett’s first casket left rotting
                        in a shed by some gravediggers and their office manager
                        who’d pocketed the funds donated for its preservation.

Black’s poem is followed by Michael White’s “Coup.” Set in Wilmington, N.C., the poem continues Black’s exploration of how the present is haunted by the past. A walk along the banks of Cape Fear becomes a meditation on the racially-charged Wilmington Insurrection of 1898.  The poem ends:

                        One of the last men killed that night was killed
                        right here, on Water Street. Two white men claimed
                        an unnamed black had “sassed” them. Therefore they shot him;

                        therefore they “toss his body off the dock,”
                        where fathers & daughters ramble, & lovers talk,
                        & everyone loves to go for an evening walk.

In this same vein is Joe Mills’s slyly effective “My Daughter Continues to be Annoyed by George Washington,” in which the poet offers to keep his daughter’s allowance so she won’t be sullied by money bearing the slave-owning president’s portrait. “I saw the struggle, the realization / that this wasn’t how it should be, how it is,” Mills writes. 
In addition to strong poems about race, there are wonderful odes to place, family members, life-partners, and nature, among other objects of desire. However, a couple of the finest pieces are characterized less by their subject matter than the sheer joy of language they employ. Tony Morris’s “Night Time Closes In” is one long sentence in praise of—among other things—automotive repair. It begins:

                        Kenny popped his head above the hood and yelled
                        over the roar to shut the engine down
                        because the timing wasn’t right and as the night
                        pressed in we know we’d need to cap the headers
                        with a muffler or the cops would soon be called
                        and nothing killed a buzz like quitting on a rebuild

What matters here, more than anything else, is language that rushes along more powerfully than “…a 327 cubic inch, bored 30 over, high- / torque cam lobe, [with] Headman Hedders…” 
Equally compelling is Al Maginnes’s “Love Song for Electricity,” which has the wonderfully Baby-Boomerish lines:

                        For the kool aid, the strobe, the nightmare wash
                                    of black light, for the tape and the tape loop,
                        for the recordings and the gaps in recordings,
                                    how different would this present be without you?

More than others in this collection, these two poems manage not just to reflect and meditate upon what matters, but also to embody and luxuriate in it. As Archibald MacLeish so famously wrote, “A poem should not mean / But be.” There’s no denying these poems’ striving to mean. If anything, it’s their being, their existence on the page, that is not fully realized. Although this is a good anthology, a few different editorial decisions could have made it even better.

Holding the anthology back is a lack of context. Although I admire gathering poems about essential things, What Matters comes across as overly broad. Poems are often grouped thematically, and it would have been better for this to be more overt—for the groups to be in discreet sections focusing on themes of family, place, etc. In addition, incorporating white space to create breathing room between the sections would have given readers a moment to re-group and re-focus.

Also, though lengthy introductions and forewords are usually unnecessary, here the single-page editorial text could definitely have been longer to single out some of the themes and perhaps individual poems. Although a poem has to stand (or fall) on its own, some editorial insights would have helped the book’s cohesion. Additionally, it is unclear whether the editors took regional affiliation into consideration when making their selections because a few international poets are represented, which drives home the fact that meaning exists within different cultural contexts. Knowing more about the editorial process and expectations would have helped make those contexts clearer.

Overall, What Matters is an ambitious collection of poems whose goal could have been even more fully realized. But whatever its shortfalls, the anthology brings together both accomplished and emerging poets to remind us that words do matter, that they point to things and events beyond themselves, and are not an end unto themselves.