This morning I sat down to write my annual retrospective column highlighting the stunning books reviewed this past year in Connotation Press Volume VII. I sat down. And then, almost immediately, I got back up and went for a walk.
I spend a lot of time walking. I have four dogs and live in the woods on what was once a thriving hill farm (founded by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s paternal grandparents). I walk in the morning, in the afternoon, and after dark. I trek the unmaintained road to my house, the snowmobile trail that crosses my driveway, the old logging trails now overgrown with knee-high grass and blackberry brambles. The trails I walk are living, breathing creatures: bony miles of dirt and rocks and ruts. They swell and glaze with ice in late fall and then disappear beneath long months of winter snow. In spring they split open again, ice and muddy water gushing down the hill, the ground swallowing my boots like molasses.
I tend to see walking and reading (or writing about one’s reading) as intuitively related processes. When I read a book, when I step forth into it in order to become intimately acquainted with it (as one must when writing a book review), I am always keenly aware of the idea of text as landscape. As a reader, editor, and critic, I am drawn to deeply physical writing, and I work earnestly to search out each book’s singular literary geography—to navigate and map topographies built of syntax, image, sound, structure, voice, and story. I look for work that is rich and organic, that moves beneath my feet as I walk. And when I gaze back through this lens at the six titles Connotation Press has reviewed over that past year—A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, edited by Laura McCullough; The Poems of Catullus: An Annotated Translation, translated by Jeanine Diddle Uzzi and Jeffrey Thomson; The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison by Maggie Smith, reviewed by Allison Donohue; Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape by Lauret Savoy; Bright Stranger by Katherine Soniat; and the black maria by Aracelis Girmay—I see in each a distinct, complex, and tangibly crafted terrain.
Sometimes a book recasts familiar land in a new light. We have walked that way before, but our footsteps have become a habit and we can’t recall the last time we truly took in the surroundings. Take, for example, The Poems of Catullus: An Annotated Translation, translated by Jeanine Diddle Uzzi and Jeffrey Thomson, which masterfully rejects past approaches to Catullus “as a poet tied tightly to his historical context, ancient Rome of the Late Republic, and usefully primarily to students of Latin and classics” and reframes him, instead, as an enduring poet with a passionate and intensely physical poetics, as manifested in his trademark vulgarity, as well as his palpable approach to sound and rhetoric. Through their rich and nuanced perspective on Catullus as a poet and their skillful attention to the topographies of sound and texture within his poems, Thomson and Uzzi widen the gaze through which Catullus’ corpus
must be viewed, read, and taught. And though it is a very different project, Laura McCullough’s A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (University of Georgia Press, 2015) is also an exacting appeal for finding new ways of seeing. The anthology is expertly arranged so that the essays create direct and engaged conversations with one another about race, identity, and language that are both intimate and intellectual as contributors “quarrel, first, with themselves, digging deeply into what they have experienced and know” so that they might “know something afterward that they themselves didn’t know going in.” McCullough provides a structure that exposes the messiness of speaking about race while also producing a tangible, forward-moving dialogue into future conversations, inviting readers and authors alike to enter into uncomfortable discussions and to identify absences and patterns of systemic silence.
Sometimes the walk begins at dusk, when the eyes play tricks on themselves. You can’t discern fireflies from the lit eyes of predators in the underbrush. Invisible spider webs stretch across tree limbs, and when you walk through them, they cling to your skin. Maggie Smith’s The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015) begins in the dark woods of fairy tale where a child strays from the path and “the forest opens for her.” As Allison Donohue observes in her review, Smith’s forest is “a multi-faceted and layered labyrinth both nourishing and menacing” and, with its “mirroring trees and same-barked woods,” it is a realm in which one can “easily become disoriented.” Smith crafts a careful dichotomy, spinning the sinister and gleaming world of the fairytale forest alongside a more ordinary world of suburban cul-de-sacs and bicycles, and, occasionally, allowing the two to swerve dangerously and alluringly close
another for “once you cross, as you must, / you cannot go back. There is nothing / to retrieve : when the bridge catches fire…” Likewise, in Katherine Soniat’s Bright Stranger (LSU Press, 2016) the speaker tracks loss “through branches, then deeper into the woods.” Here Soniat’s journey, delicately woven through and around the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, is a trek through the natural world and the liminal spaces of the mind where “there’s neither night nor day.” The topography is marked by a slow descent, the footing frequently uncertain. Ghosts trail quietly behind, following the speaker, and the surrounding landscape is prone to quick flashes of wildfire or other violence. Formally, the poems are often marked by sudden ruptures and relentless, illusive silences, reflected. It is “a strange place to end up” where “coyote howl creeps into my bed along with the / moon.”
Often, we go for a walk in order to seek connection and to actively engage with our surroundings—both the natural phenomena of our environment and the sediment of human history upon which it is built. Lauret Savoy’s Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape directly engages her gnawing obsession “to trace what has marked me.” From “the dark heart of forests” to the deserts of the Southwest to the National Archive in Washington D.C. where she discovers her great-great-great-grandmother “inked in by name as the property of a dead man,” Savoy, a professor of geology and environmental studies, examines the confluence of shifting language, the topography and geological layers of landscape, and the midden of memory that have marked so many American displacements and migrations. Her stunning memoir is an attempt to claim her own place among a “still unfolding history,” for
“re-membering is an alternative to extinction” and “home indeed lies among the ruins and shards that surround us all.” Arecelis Girmay’s the black maria embodies a similar effort to map and voice African diasporic histories and the searing legacy of racism within the United States. Girmay’s journey—a fractured and tidal unfolding—is set primarily at sea rather than on land, but here we see again the conviction that each of us carries ghosts within us (“The dead are always / You. Not you.”) as well as the deep desire for connections that might heal the many “estrangements” we experience from our selves, our land, our stories, and one another. And we see, too, that language, with its myriad possibilities and small miracles, offers what is perhaps our greatest hope for unity: “& knowing what we know now / of history & of love, / let us name every air between strangers “Reunion.”
Friends, I hope that you enjoy this look back into the different titles reviewed by Connotation Press Volume VII and that you are encouraged to walk out into these marvelous pages and out into the amazing world that surrounds you. Whether you are walking a well-trod path or lost in unfamiliar woods, may your feet show you the way!
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine where she is a poet, editor, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her debut collection, Work by Bloodlight, was selected by Linda Pastan for the 2015 Cider Press Review Book Award and is forthcoming in January 2017. Her poems and reviews can be found in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Muzzle, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, and other journals. She is the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.