“A Thousand Cabbages and Other Poems”
By Mary Mullen; Hardscratch Press, 2023; 65 pages; $16.
“It’s a Crooked Road but Not Far to the House of Flowers”
By Wendy Erd; The Poetry Box, 2023; 73 pages; $18.
“The Shape of Wind on Water: New and Selected Poems”
By Ann Fox Chandonnet; Loom Press, 2023; 204 pages; $20.
Three new poetry collections by women both well-rooted in Alaska and well-traveled in the world share close attention to the world and compassion for all its beings while bringing very different experiences and styles to readers. These three volumes are a feast of precise details, language play, and commentary on the forces that shape lives and communities.
Mary Mullen grew up in a Soldotna homesteading family, later lived in Ireland for two decades, and now makes her home in Oregon with her daughter. “A Thousand Cabbages” is her second book of poems. What a gem it is — a treasure much more valuable than the nickel she and her siblings once earned, as told in the title poem, for finding a hidden pocketknife under a cabbage in their family’s field. (The chance at a nickel was the incentive for the children’s considerable labor of weeding and harvesting.)
Mullen’s book is divided into three sections — each related to a place and a portion of her life. The first is “before motherhood — Alaska,” the second “single motherhood — Ireland,” and the third “still and always mothering — Oregon.”
Her Alaska poems draw upon family events, fishing, Mullen’s Head Start teaching years in rural Alaska, and some uniquely Alaskan traditions like listening to nightly radio messages to those without phones. The story of an atiqluq (the Inupiaq version of a hooded overdress with a large front pocket) includes these lines: “The sewing machine sang for a few minutes, / then her steady hands pulled the atiqluq / over my head. I was a spring flower, all ruffled and brave.” Later, the narrator gifts the same atiqluq to her mother, who takes it from her closet when “she heard the spirit of Winifred and the whalers call to her / through the Inupiat tulips.”
Later poems often feature daughter Lily, with the joys and struggles of parenting always suffused with love. “Invading the Trisomy 21″ and other poems share the experience of birthing and mothering a child with Down syndrome. “Homage to Lily’s Speech and Language Therapist” and “Lilyisms, September 2020″ both capture the rapid-fire, spirited chatter of that child and the young adult she becomes.
Wendy Erd wrote and published poetry for decades before compiling her work into a debut volume. “It’s a Crooked Road” divides her work into five thematic sections that mix poems drawn largely from her life in Homer, summers commercial fishing in Bristol Bay, and 20 years of split-time in Asia, where she supported community storytelling through exhibits and film. Throughout, her poems are quiet and inquisitive, honoring the world’s mysteries and the many ways of knowing.
It’s perhaps a commentary on the closeness of Alaska’s poetry community that one of Erd’s poems mentions Mary Mullen, Mary’s daughter Lily, and the Mullen family matriarch. “I Hope I’m Folding Chairs When I’m Ninety” begins “Old Marge folds them easily as cloth napkins / after her daughter’s poetry reading” and describes “the way she moves, flipping seats closed, stacking them in neat rows against the wall / like cordwood, like years she’s counted and put aside.”
In 2012, supported by the Bunnell Street Arts Center, Erd studied the landscape, wildlife, and weather of Homer’s Beluga Slough and composed a series of poems that continue to be displayed and enjoyed by visitors to the slough’s boardwalk. Those poems now are more broadly shared in the final section of “It’s a Crooked Road.” “April: Migrating Birds Month” includes “We count them in like old friends, / Pintail’s silhouette, / Raucous yellowlegs, / Sky-whistling snipe. / Sandpipers flash by / A gossip of speckle-chested geese. / Sky-hinges, the rust-rattle cries of sandhill cranes / Pry open windows and doors.”
Ann Fox Chandonnet lived and wrote in Alaska for 34 years and now resides in Missouri. She has never paused in her writing — from journalism, travel, cookbooks, children’s books, and poetry. “The Shape of Wind on Water” gathers 50 new poems along with nearly as many selections from six previous collections — and one final essay that reflects on her writerly beginnings and her continuing devotion to translating thoughts into words.
Compared to the relatively slim collections from Mullen and Erd, Chandonnet’s work is expansive, not just in the fullness of the volume but in the length and variety of individual poems and the extent of her interests and research.
“The Shape of Wind on Water” divides the newer poems into sections labeled People, Places, Correspondence, and Harvest. The people poems reach from the lives of great-grandparents to more recent times, remembering a man translating English to Yupik and another teaching Eskimo dancing. “Fine Shining Weather: Three Poems for John Muir” blend research and imagination to present Muir as a boy, then in an 1871 conversation with Ralph Waldo Emerson in Yosemite, then after his death. Here’s Muir speaking of Emerson: “He is 68, the star of his own wagon, / but he came from San Francisco to see me, / John O’Mountain, / with sawdust in my hair. / I shook his white hand with my callused, pitchy paw. / I could have lain the log I was slabbing at his feet. / I could have lain at his feet myself.”
Similarly detailed research and the adoption of voices distinct from the author’s own are trademarks of Chandonnet’s intellectually keen and well-crafted poetry. In Places, she takes readers to glaciers in Southeast Alaska, an ancient ivoo (or ivu — a push of ice from the ocean onto land) in Barrow/Utqiagvik, a secret channel between lakes where she once spotted a two-foot-long trout, Oklahoma in the 19th century, and Amish Country in Pennsylvania where fireflies “muster.” In Correspondence she imagines letters from historical figures like Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg. Harvests includes a childhood memory of hay harvest and observation of a whale hauled up on the ice as “a landscape unto itself, / undulating black dunes” as well as less literal kinds of “harvests.”
Each of these three poets, each in her own fashion, brings the richness of our world not just closer but into sharper focus — that we might find in the lives of others what can light up our own.