Coming Out of Nowhere: Alaska Homestead Poems, Linda Schandelmeier; University of Alaska Press/Snowy Owl Books, 2018, 88 pages, $14.95.
Every Atom, Erin Coughlin Hollowell; Boreal Books, 2018, 88 pages, $16.95.
Li Bai Rides a Celestial Dolphin Home, Tom Sexton; University of Alaska Press/Snowy Owl Books, 2018, 72 pages, $14.95.
“Because poems are not journalistic endeavors, they often tell the ‘truth’ in a way that may or may not be straightforward,” poet Linda Schandelmeier writes in the introduction to her recent collection, adding, “The way of poets, as Emily Dickinson described in her poem #1129, is to ‘Tell all Truth but tell it slant–.’”
Schandelmeier is one of three Alaska poets exploring aspects of their lives in recently published collections. In “Coming Out of Nowhere,” she turns to her childhood south of Anchorage in the 1950s and 60s, on land her father homesteaded in the Rabbit Creek area along what is now the Old Seward Highway. At the time it was still wilderness with no immediate road access. Her father had come north from Arizona in 1940, and soon met and married her mother, who had grown up in Seldovia, and together they worked the land.
The early poems offer paint an image of the family’s isolated life where her father plowed potato fields, her mother labored at household chores, and “The three of us / two girls and a boy, / ran out along footpaths / imagined mountains / like ribs circling our hearts.”
It was a place where “Mountains watched over us / as we slept soundly / not hearing the night in the trees, / which were friendly beings, / like rattling leaves / like lullabies in the wind."
Schandelmeier’s childhood was not as idyllic as it appeared on the surface, however. She explores the family tensions that would led her parents divorce in her teens. Then men were hired to work the fields of her family’s growing farm, and they exploited her sexually. Schandelmeier relates these events in short poems that meet the standard she sets for herself in her introduction, poems that “tell the ’truth’” by conveying the pain she endured through verbal imagery rather than lengthy details.
Today the city of Anchorage has consumed the wilderness of her youth. Busy streets and duplexes crowd the land that she once roamed freely across. Memories have been paved over. For her and her siblings, Schandelmeier writes, “Our skin is like the bark of the missing trees.”
Erin Coughlin Hollowell also turns to her childhood, as well as her adulthood, in “Every Atom,” a collection drawn from watching her mother lose her memory and descend into dementia. “My mother now a ransacked house,” she writes, “every window broken, and what she once knew she knew is gone.”
Hollowell, we learn from these poems, was never close to her mother, who even when she was in full command of her mind, was distant and unapproachable. Focused on appearances, not connections, she raised her daughter at arm’s length.
Hollowell grew up during the Vietnam War, and the contrast between what was on television and her rigid upbringing is stark. “Each dinner, / the television / detonated with / gunfire from helicopters. / Mother had me set / the dinner table. / I had been trained which / direction the knife / blade should face. I knew / how to use a shrimp / fork. I could iron / anything smooth. I / was a child, but I / knew that white gloves / and party manners were / best, because when I / was silent, clean, and / neat, my mother / would love me. / Or so I was taught.”
Decades late she finds, “The body was once the house of the mother. But now / it is a reminder of erosion and fault lines. / She goes where we push her. She dozes all day.”
A few pages later, Hollowell finds herself lost as well. “Inside / all the time you contained me / in your life from lump of cells / to ghost voice on the telephone. / I can’t decide which of us / is now outside the frame.”
As with Schandelmeier, Hollowell finds her way to truth through images and moments looked at from a slant.
“Li Bai Rides a Celestial Dolphin Home,” by Tom Sexton, a former poet laureate of Alaska, has four distinct sections exploring differing but interlocked themes.
In the first, he and his wife retrace the journey they took a half century ago when they drove from New York to Alaska “in a Volkswagen bus with four bald tires / and a spare with its sidewall cracked.”
“Now we both bear fresh scars from a surgeon’s knife,” he adds one line later.
Sexton and his wife travel out of New York and across the Canadian prairie, where the same post-industrial malaise that haunts rural America has set in. “An acrid plume of steam shaped like a child’s / bonnet rose into the early morning sky / over the last mill in town by a tannin-colored river. / Its main street a punch drunk fighter / with most of his teeth knocked out. / Here a Lexus more than a house. / The pawn shop’s sign reads ‘jewelry and guns.’ / No one was out for a morning run.”
The couple drives onward into the Yukon and Alaska, encountering towns and people barely hanging on, but nature still thriving.
The second section springs from Sexton’s two weeks as artist-in-residence at Denali Park, and his stay in naturalist Adolph Murie’s famed cabin on the Toklat River. Here Sexton imagines the eighth century Chinese poet Li Bai awakening from a bender and exploring the park. He befriends a magpie and encounters a bear, a trapper, and a climber boasting of his multiple summits of Denali. “You should honor it with your absence,” Sexton has Li Bai tell the climber, “a mountain as great as the one before us needs its privacy.”
Li Bai also watches and sings with the wolf pack that Murie studied for his landmark book, but as Sexton notes bitterly, “The wolves have all been killed as I write these lines.”
The third section contains two poems reflecting on Alaska’s Russian history, while the closing sequence explores the interaction of man and nature, where Sexton also approaches truth from a slant, writing of those who miss what lies right before them, “How sad it / must be to not love the moon, / its river of flowing light.”