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. 

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