Spring Poetry Omnibus

Davy Knittle

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight (Flood Editions, 2015) is a verse narrative focused on Ruby, an Aboriginal teenager, whose family is killed by white settlers in a late-nineteenth-century attack. Most of the poems follow Ruby after the massacre, as she meets and falls in love with Jack, a white fur trapper, and as she negotiates the aftermath of her loss. It’s Ruby’s attunement to the South Australian landscape and its animals, weather, and light that most strongly populates the poems and drives them forward.

In the book’s early poems, birds move to signal the attack, as Ruby and her family wait together: “they watch in silence / ready to flee // the meeting erupts / in a bird storm.” Waiting comprises much of Ruby’s efforts throughout the book. In one of the final poems, “in the morning Ruby waits / watching the landscape // listening to the wind / and birds.” Ruby marks the time she spends waiting by courting darkness, and by attending to shifts in light. In a poem titled “Green,” “her eyes lift in open prayer / the sun sparkles strange.” In other moments, “she likes being unseen // it is a safer feeling / than being seen / in full view.” She’s drawn to moments where “the starlight is enough / to neon cave paintings.” 

Ruby Moonlight was originally published by the Australian Aboriginal publisher Magabala Books in 2012 and was reprinted in the U.S. in 2015. Each of the book’s short lyrics is framed by a one-word title, most often a noun: “Birds,” or “Mud,” or “Moon,” or “Signs,” but also adjectives: “Shy,” “Cursed,” and “Falling.”

The connected poems move quickly, propelled by the aggregation of detail, of how the air smells, of what the light does. In “Birds,” which carries some of the book’s longest lines, “pied butcherbirds lay trinkets in her path / grey fantails flutter a soft revival.” Cobby Eckermann presents figurative movement with the same laconic specificity with which she describes how animals populate the landscape. In “Shelter,” as Ruby remains still for days to pray, “language sings on her skin.” As she plans to part from another Aboriginal community that she meets after her family is killed, “Ritual” opens, “it is time to leave / this pausing place.”

Cobby Eckerman deftly situates the book’s narrative within a world of wind and birds and instinct that all help Ruby persevere. It’s Ruby’s prolonged stillness that affords her attention to her surroundings, and to herself. In Ruby Moonlight, Cobby Eckermann suggests how trauma spreads to everything that surrounds a body, to everything a body touches and sees. The book tells Ruby’s story through the perspicacity with which she observes the South Australian landscape and who lives in and on it, and where she sustains herself in the wake of an act of racial violence.

Ali Cobby Eckermann
Ruby Moonlight
Flood Editions, 2015
$14.95 paperback; ISBN 9780990340720
96 pgs.  

Mary Hickman’s This Is the Homeland

This Is the Homeland (Ahsahta, 2015), Mary Hickman’s debut collection, ends with the lines: “I am filling your borders with letters. / This is the new word — get up and live.” The interval of the collection uses these final lines to extend beyond its limits. The borders of the book are filled, but the body is still filling after the poems end.   

The declarative final lines echo the constructions of Hickman’s earlier poem “Territory”: “The fertile // red valleys warming up. This is the way to the steel table. / This is the homeland.” Here, Hickman turns to her work in the early 2000s as a surgical technician, assisting in open-heart surgeries. It’s the body that is the homeland, but the homeland is also the practice of trying to connect and strengthen bodies, whether through surgery, by reframing what bodies and landscapes are to one another, or by figuring the body as a landscape. Surgery happens in the fertile, red valleys of the body, as though to live is to grow a life.

In “Remembering Animals,” the first in an eponymous series that recurs throughout the book, Hickman writes, “I’d like to think / I could solve the problems of / love lives, libraries, wildlife, / obfuscating / griefs.” The speaker’s site for leaning toward solution is the poem, the borders of which frame both body and land. The speaker paints in these poems; she crafts a record and reveals that documentation is curated, and therefore never exact. The second poem in the collection that shares the title “Remembering Animals” begins, “It’s hard to light / a photo shot / in torrential rain."

The series is an elegy both general and directed, and it's also a reminder that humans are animals that remember. The poems remember the people they contain to the homelands their bodies must be. In “William My Man,” Hickman writes, “If he could rest his ears he could see / ginkgos in his city.” “Geese Rising” ends, “If you will carry me, she says / If you will carry me, the geese repeat / And you should echo." How can we use our bodies to know our landscapes? the poems ask. How does a landscape remind us that we are located in bodies? How do we know what to do with the fact of our bodies and where they are?

In “Totem,” Hickman writes, “A shimmer in breeze picks us up, our scent a peal that calls us / outside rooms.” In “The Pool,” she writes, “I woke to the smell of apples like an open nerve, the scent a memory / pushed from sleep.” These poems—a set of lovely, insistent lyrics—are attuned to dissonance and its necessity. They suggest that we need to hear what we don’t know we’ve forgotten. This is a book of quiet risks, risks Hickman takes in the poems so that we might bravely remember, so that we might echo her attention and risk connectivity.

Mary Hickman
This Is the Homeland
Ahsahta Press, 2015
$18.00 paperback; ISBN 9781934103616
80 pgs. 

Julia Bloch’s Valley Fever

“The Byronic Woman,” eighth in the collection of short poems comprising Julia Bloch’s second full-length collection, Valley Fever (Sidebrow, 2015), opens, “I love a woman whose / face is about to cry // I don’t love it if she cries / only if she is about to." Impending, but never fully realized, is the state wherein much of the poem's action is poised. Much of this action is performed by winter faces and mouths.

“Apartment,” a set of snapshots set in “winter on edge of something altering fast” includes a “mouth working itself / before a camera.” In “Coeval,” “Winter pools out / the ear as I walk / west with a hot face.” Near the book’s end, in “Glass (For the Eyes),” “clarity / reflects the whole face." Faces and mouths in the poems are the surfaces of the body that most frequently touch the seasons, mostly winter, and most frequently head out into and mediate the world.

Winter in Los Angeles is the book’s locus—“Apology to Los Angeles” begins “I’m sorry because winter.” The season is often what there is to be sure of. What remains unidentified, or what doesn’t occur, shares the book’s locus. Bloch’s poems refuse the possibility of comprehensive documentation: “Not everything can be cited,” Bloch writes in “PST Sonnet,” and “Serial” ends “Not everything is a citation."

While the book includes a set of notes that detail borrowed phrases, the final poem, “Allison Corporation,” ends “I am angling at the surface larger / than your actual face, a not / corporate body. This is a love poem / and I did not do any research.” There is no total record in these poems, and no chance of one.

The book’s title suggests a kind of general malaise, as well as the disease “Valley Fever,” which is contracted most often by breathing in a particular fungus. Valley Fever the disease thrives in deserts. While you’re unlikely to contract it in Los Angeles, there are a couple hundred cases in L.A. County annually, but chronic drought and high winds that spread dust with the fungus in it have sent the number steadily up in recent years. 

Dust, which is in the poems, is like weather, in that it’s how the body wears the atmosphere. The “surface larger / than your actual face,” which the speaker addresses, is the surface of the body, and the surface of L.A., and the surface of California. Moments are surfaces too, as though other kinds and units of time crowd around behind them.

Valley Fever is a kind of discomfort you just live with, a way of being in Los Angeles, a city that is in trouble, but also okay. Weather, in these poems, is the space in which time and bodies converge. In “Unseasonal,” Bloch writes, “Bacchus is nothing like the weather. / Flesh is nothing like the weather." Nothing is like the weather but weather, which isn’t like itself because it’s changing, and that’s painful, in the poems, but dully, hurting a little every day.

Julia Bloch
Valley Fever
Sidebrow Books, 2015
$15.00 paperback; ISBN 9781940090032
83 pgs.

Gracie Leavitt’s Monkeys, Minor Planet, Average Star

Gracie Leavitt’s debut collection, Monkeys, Minor Planet, Average Star (Nightboat Books, 2014), uses R. Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth as its intertext, passages from his book making up pages of Leavitt's own. In Operating Manual, Fuller offers a critique of professional specialization and emphasizes “long distance thinking” as a way of more comprehensively addressing “spaceship earth,” the transitory home in which we all live.

Fuller’s critique amends the Stephen Hawking quotation from which Leavitt’s title is drawn: “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” Following Fuller, we might be able to understand the universe if we learn new ways to look. Leavitt’s poems are about how to look, and how to figure out what there is to see.

Leavitt’s poems attune the reader to the frame of their viewership. Her “long distance thinking” informs a poetics simultaneously devoted to engaging and subverting meaning. The first and third sections of the book, entitled “Gap Gardening” I and II respectively, employ Rosmarie Waldrop’s concept of “gap gardening,” a mode of writing that cultivates discontinuity by bringing the gap offered by the margins of a poem into its body.

Leavitt’s book orbits around what can happen when two units meet, whether they are gap-gardened phrases or elements of landscape: riverbanks, what’s under bodies of water, and what’s divided or dovetailed or refracted within soil, air, or memory. How ideas fit together and how space fits together are one subject for Leavitt.

Most of the poems are dedicated to a particular person, or offer a first name in their body, or both. They’re emphatically concerned with images of youth. In “Superior Mirage,” Leavitt writes, “my love whose Coke can rolled / the span of her long tarmac drive.” (The book includes two elegies to young artists, friends of the poet.) The poems reach for people thinking about the universe, for childhood memories, and for a community of friends and other poets: “Wonder these days who’s to say / what we two say to each other,” she writes in “#2” in the series “Fifth Grade Ophelia."

Leavitt’s poems in this collection take up Fuller’s claim that “What we want everybody to do is to think clearly.” These are poems that are so clear about the fact that clarity is not their project, that a “long distance” thought about the universe happens on many scales at once, coming together as a graft or a split. They’re relentless as the “damned earth turned over and over.” 

Turning is one way Leavitt’s poems move, where the lines turn as spaceship earth does, and where phrase and universe are each central to Leavitt’s concerns. There must be more ways for multisensory information and multimodal thinking to coexist, Fuller argues. And Leavitt answers that invitation with a book that questions what the universe is and how we think about it. Leavitt attunes herself to hawks, to safflower, to yellow flags, and to a “wet calico nightshirt.” Reading these poems requires wrestling with them. They argue that wrestling is a necessary way to be with information and contain intervals of a fractal universe, partial but also entire, finding wholes in strangely specific locations. In “#6” in “Fifth Grade Ophelia,” Leavitt speaks to the gaps that get in the poems: “Really now to know or have it featured is within bog laurel / where entire margins revolute.” A gap-gardened universe is, perhaps, one like a text: you can never get outside its reach.

Gracie Leavitt
Monkeys, Minor Planet, Average Star
Nightboat Books, 2014
$15.95 paperback; ISBN 978937658168
102 pgs. 

Davy Knittle is the author of the chapbooks empathy for cars / force of july (horse less press, 2016) and cyclorama (the operating system, 2015). He lives in Philadelphia, where he is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania.