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Peggy Shumaker’s ‘Cairn’ unpacks a life lived in poetry

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: March 17, 2019
  • Published March 16, 2019

Cairn: New and Selected Poems and Prose

Peggy Shumaker, Red Hen Press, 408 pages, 2018. $28.95

’Cairn, ’ by Peggy Shumaker

Peggy Shumaker has one of the most extensive résumés in Alaska literature: widely published poet, memoirist, professor emerita at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one-time Alaska State Writer Laureate, founder of Boreal Books, editor of the Alaska Literary Series for University of Alaska Press, mentor to countless writers, and much more. She’s not lived an idle existence.

With that much work behind her, and still going strong, it’s fitting that her most recent book, “Cairn,” looks both forward and backward. The subtitle, “New and Selected Poems and Prose,” only hints at what is contained within these pages: a career retrospective tracing her pathway to now, and work moving in new directions.

Much like Shumaker’s life, what’s collected here wanders over a broad landscape, but mostly focuses on the Sonoran Desert she grew up in, and Alaska, where she made her home as an adult. There are also brief journeys into the American West, Europe, and Hawaii among other places, and thoughts on other poets. Her reflections range from intensely personal and inward looking, to expansive views of the world around her. And she offers up her story, wherein despite the long odds of her upbringing, and personal setbacks that would lead many to despair, she’s continued to rise upward. In its own quiet way, “Cairn” provides readers with more inspiration than can be found from a shelf load of self-help books.

The collection begins with the new works, and they travel in several distinct directions. Immediately there is an overtly political poem (the only one in the book) pleading for women to be allowed autonomy over their bodies. As we learn over the course of the next 400 pages, this is something her mother rarely knew. And as that story emerges, the opening poem makes increasing sense.

This is followed by a tribute to the late Fairbanks photographer Barry McWayne, and then a selection of new poems exploring the wonders and pitfalls of living, perhaps best summarized in the brief piece titled “Healing.”

“What we cannot reach / what we cannot yet do / the yet means we’re alive. / Wild frustration, growing. / What we cannot ever reach / what we cannot ever do / the ever means we’re human.”

And then, in the section following, she reaches. Titled “Sparks,” it resulted from a year-long experiment between Shumaker and Fairbanks artist Kesler Woodward. The two embarked on a conversation in which Shumaker provided Woodward with a poem, to which he created a painting in response. He didn’t attempt to capture the poem on the canvas. Rather, he painted what the poem brought to his mind. Then Shumaker responded in like form.

Interspersed between the poems and the paintings are discussions between the two of how they interacted, and what thoughts and choices led to each response. It’s an opportunity for readers to discover the details and results of a synergistic partnership, and it’s the most intriguing section of the book.

The final section of new works collects poems Shumaker wrote to honor her good friend, the Homer-based poet, essayist and biologist Eva Saulitis, who died of cancer in early 2016. Saulitis had chronicled her battle with the disease in her writings, and Shumaker memorializes her friend’s courage and contributions, while mourning her passing.

The balance of the book is devoted to selections from seven previous poetry collections and her memoir. Here readers have the unique opportunity of watching a poet hone her skills, experiment with ideas, and find her way to the voice she now has.

The earliest works were first published in book form in 1985, and the difference between these poems and the new ones that preceded them is stark. In the early poems from this and other decades-old collections, Shumaker is much wordier, and more prone to a narrative poetry that she appears to have gradually shed. Her newer poems are notable for their spartan nature, but these older ones border on the Whitmanesque.

The shattered relationships of the broken family she grew up in feature heavily in these poems, as does the Southwestern landscape of Tucson, where she spent her childhood. The rich mythological culture of that region also informs many of these works. And while they’re stylistically far removed from the recent selections, they show a voice already powerful.

Here we also find Shumaker experimenting and pushing at her boundaries, most notably in “Elegy for Getz,” where, inspired by saxophonist Stan Getz, she applies jazz rhythms to Southwestern imagery.

With the move to Alaska, Shumaker’s language shortened dramatically. The more recent poems are briefer, their stanzas shorter, yet they reach out farther and ask more questions. “If language is bones, hard parts / of speech,” she queries in “Gnawed Bones,” “what do skulls of pack rats / crushed into owl pellets / have to tell us?” This, in a sense, is how Shumaker’s later works operate. Crushed bones that bear the traces of entire systems.

Those bones are more thoroughly fleshed out in the selections from her 2007 memoir “Just Breathe Normally,” which are wisely placed at the end of the book. Here we learn more of her childhood in an impoverished family with a mother and father who couldn’t hold relationships together with each other or other partners, much less with their children. It’s remarkable Shumaker arrived where she is today, highly educated, widely traveled, and a mentor to others, rather than, say, an exhausted waitress with a nicotine habit. In this section we also read of the accident that nearly killed her, when she and her husband (who she repeatedly expresses her love for throughout this book) were struck while bicycling by a young man recklessly traveling at high speed on an ATV.

Reading of Shumaker’s life in these final pages prompts a return to the poems that precede them, to be read with a new understanding. “What are we without language,” she asks in one of the new selections. For Shumaker, language is everything, and she employs it remarkably.