Book review: 2 new poetry collections lay the groundwork for reclaiming our humanity

“Breaking into Air: Birth Poems”

By Emily Wall; Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2022; 80 pages; $16.95.

“tender gravity”

By Marybeth Holleman; Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2022; 88 pages; $16.95.

Boreal Books, founded and edited by Peggy Shumaker, a former Alaska writer laureate, has since 2008 been publishing exemplary poetry and prose by Alaskans. This summer it’s brought forth two new very different but complementary poetry collections. Emily Wall’s “Breaking into Air” grew out of a project gathering birth stories from parents and others. Marybeth Holleman’s “tender gravity” explores, tenderly, a wide range of life encounters with heart-hurts and solace, especially in the natural world.

Wall — who lives in Juneau, where she mothers three daughters and teaches English and creative writing at the University of Alaska Southeast — has authored three previous poetry books. While birthing is among the most common human experiences, it is not often the subject of literary work, and Wall has brought — birthed? — some of its varied experiences, both joyous and traumatic, into artfulness. Both content and form are surprisingly wide-ranging.

One poem, “Shaawatke’e’s Birth,” draws from X’unei Lance Twitchell’s telling of a daughter’s birth. But it is more than that; it is also about the preciousness and necessity of language and incorporates passages of Tlingit translated in footnotes.


Wall writes, “And now your tongue is a salmon/swimming downstream, heading/for the ocean of sound, ready to take your first swallow/of salt water, ready to taste your first vowels/rain on ocean, and your ear and tongue, coming now/and pain is here too, and your mother in pain.” A dramatic reading of this very moving poem was presented by Wall and Twitchell at an “Alaska Quarterly Review” event in 2017 and can be found on YouTube.

Other poems developed from the stories of new mothers, experienced mothers, grandmothers, lesbian mothers, a foster mother, doctors, a woman who miscarried, a woman unable to conceive who found other ways of mothering, biblical mothers, and even a woman in a painting. They capture the range of emotions — from fear, pain and heartbreak to hope, gratitude and tremendous joy. Wall’s own stories appear among them as blocks of italicized prose.

“Do Not Look at a Lunar Eclipse” is a found poem for which Wall collected ancient wisdoms or superstitions associated with pregnancy and birthing. “Do not place scissors in your bed/or the baby will have a cleft palate.” “Don’t let anything ugly be seen,/don’t criticize anyone/or the baby will be disagreeable.”

Another found poem, “What Does a Fetal Heartbeat Sound Like” collects the exact words of those who responded to the question Wall posted on Facebook. “Like feet running on wet sand./Like horses/galloping horses/like a hummingbird/a hundred hummingbirds in a snowstorm.” This poem leads off the entire collection, introducing the idea that the project is a collaborative one and that every person had different — and often beautifully expressed — experiences to share.

“Catching Babies: Haiku” is “for the Juneau doctors, who shared these stories.” These 12 short poems capture memorable moments from the receiving end. “First, out came a fist./Now I’m not just doctor/but her first handhold.”

“tender gravity” is Anchorage writer Marybeth Holleman’s first poetry collection, although she previously authored the nonfiction “Heart of the Sound,” co-authored “Among Wolves,” and co-edited “Crosscurrents North” and is well known as a writer and teacher. Her work is marked by a deep attentiveness to and reverence for the natural world. The poems range from kayak-level considerations of ocean life to close looks at a wetland sundew to views of the moon, comets, and the cosmos. They are, however, more than observations and celebrations of nature; they interrogate questions of life and death, responsibility to human and non-human beings, and the contradictions we all live with. Multiple references to the death of a younger brother add to the layering.

Holleman, similar to Wall, begins with a “heartbeat” poem. “The Beating Heart, Minus Gravity” speaks of a dream of diving “to the blue depth/and rising, rising, following/bubble after bubble, seeing/golden sunlight glinting above/but never reaching/no matter how hard i kick/the tender gravity of air.” This sets an expectation for an immersion into humility before nature and its infinite mysteries.

Holleman’s love of the ocean and its life is freely expressed here, in “The Outer Coast,” “Culross Passage, Five Months After,” Passing Through the Barren Islands,” “Whales at Night” and other poems. In “The Outer Coast” the narrator dreams of a familiar place “…and yet/home to some primigenial memory/of when I, like these/moon jellies slipping/by, spent days aimlessly/aimed for what/I could not yet see.” The “after” in “Culross Passage” references the time when tar balls and absorbent pads littered the beaches of Holleman’s beloved Prince William Sound after the massive oil spill. There, she witnessed a mountain goat swimming from island to mainland, something biologists said wasn’t possible.

One of the most heart-stopping poems in the collection, “skating after many moons,” takes readers to a frozen pond where the narrator once took her small son. Their mission on a summer day was to record the sounds of wood frogs “for a scientist cataloguing the city’s frogs,/who wanted to see how changing weather/was changing them, would there be more/or less, would they die out as summers dried.” She recalls not just the time with her son but her own childhood “seeking the certainty a child feels about/the world that holds her steady…” Standing clumsily on the ice, her limbs begin to remember a past moment that swings her into being “dizzy in love again.”

Ada Limon, our recently appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, told “PBS NewsHour” last month, “I really believe in the power of poetry to help us reclaim our humanity, to allow us to feel all the feelings ... I think, so often, we just compartmentalize and numb ourselves to what’s going on in the world. And poetry is the place where you can do that groundwork, where you can read a poem and be, like, oh, right. I am a human begin ... And the other thing that I really believe is in poetry’s ability to help us repair our relationship to the Earth. I think that we are so distant from the land, from nature, that we forget that relationship is reciprocal.”

These essential roles are precisely those filled by the new, deeply felt and shared work by Wall and Holleman.

Nancy Lord | Alaska books

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."