Review of Uncommon Geography: Journal of NJ Poets
Review of UNCOMMON GEOGRAPHY
Carpenter Gothic Publishers, Box 714, Island Heights, NJ 08732, 77 pages, $15.00
─ Madeline Tiger, Reviewer / Journal of NJ Poets: Issue 44, 2007
If nature hadn’t existed since before time began, it would have created itself in response to the poetry of Therése Halscheid. And if ancient folk myth weren’t slowly moving in our universal unconscious already, it would be awakening us now, as we read the sentient poems in her new collection.
The poems in Uncommon Geography are wise beyond our consciousness and beyond their surfaces; the wisdom, from Halscheid’s intuitive sensibilities, through her lyrical measures, comes in slow epiphanies.
that soft opening below,
of the dirt breaking
for when the flesh springs. (from “In Seclusion,” pp.3)
While the work seems to concentrate on the sensual experience of earth itself, land and waters, it is covertly expressive of far more than naturalist sensuousness: it is deeply sexual. The bold moments of sexuality are some of the surprises in such a reverential volume of poems; and they connect again to the inner spirit. The woman facing the dense woods is, first, appreciating the naturally mystic; but she is becoming naked, becoming a woman in light... and ...shedding not only her clothes/ but each face she has given herself over time — ( from “A Woman Reflected in Woods,” p. 19 ). She becomes aware, by reflection, that her flesh had grown wild with longing. Through these poems the speaker reveals herself becoming more aware of her body and its longings. “Her own life apart” is, paradoxically, a life in harmony with the actual world, through which human life intensifies. Readers moving through Uncommon Geography will feel this also. “When Clay Speaks” plays double meanings with sculpting and making love to a woman (pp.21-22). The gutsy sexual experience is part of the spiritual journey. “Projection” refers to the urges of “the body’s language” as it moves toward self-birthing.
In a later poem, set in an eerie Florida swamp-land at night, where anything was possible..., the speaker had found shadows freeing themselves/ enough to come alive and senses something coming through the screen. It took no form but moved/ curiously forward... at which point the poem takes an admirably bold turn! First, the speaker stutters, out of the fear, self-referentially, and then after a stark space between lines, goes on to talk about herself:
who had come this far
to be torn from the civilized world
knew only how to be good to it, was good
to it in opening myself, my limbs
as a woman might
and allowed its power to fall over me
learning, as one’s eyes will do
entering words on a page.
I was read that way... (from “The Initiation,” pp.55-66)
Night-fears, tensions, in the moment of excitement, of awe, lead to the imagined (but real!) confrontation, then engagement, the opening, the empowering; then, resolution. Woman’s experience, the natural course. The orgasmic release brings calm:
in a manner which meant
felt gently closed like a book,
as it left.
The sexual is not a metaphor for, but an equivalent of the esthetic (or ecstatic) experience.
This poem, and several others in the collection, present the apotheosis of the transcendental experience – as in Whitman, particularly – of the spiritual awakening that comes directly out of the sensual event. No wonder the powerful play of lights, and Light, is crucial; and no wonder that rising is an operative gesture of the lines, as it is of the experience they report. Like Whitman, Halscheid observes the “spears of grass” and the brilliant constellations, observes all the cosmos, and herself, intensely; offers sweeping views of distances and details, and comes to the personal. Unlike Whitman’s verse, hers is honed to fine cut fragments of speech and held together in air, with threading images, with quiet phrasing; it is like wind-song, it is like prisms collected to refract and display lights. But its sweep is romantic, and searching.
In the end, Halscheid can be even more identified with the urgency in Whitman — that the poet encompasses the people, her readers, and an even broader “you” of her reckoning: Can you not see... I am ...carrying your thoughts/ which have released themselves to me/ taking away stale hours, / that you may enter/ new ways of becoming... I am of you, all of you, taking into my lungs/ whatever your minds are made of... (from “Voice of Air,” p.77)
Therése Halscheid is a lyric heir to Mary Oliver, but more connected to diverse locales; her wanderings, and her “uncommon geographies” pull her poems into direct contact with places she perceives as out of the ordinary range. She establishes contact, takes knowledge, roots down. She communicates in/ and from/ whatever place she finds. In an early poem, it is night, but light is exchanged.
As if I am walking
as if I have entered
some kind of celestial gathering,
a place where a sudden light
breeze has a voice locked
inside it. (“The Exchange,” pp.4-5)
The poet unlocks the “voice” and learns—about “Oneness...” Her hands glow. My own fingers/ are becoming illuminated/ ... while/ the forest brightens... inside its darkness. Luminous hands —a persistent motif— become a figure for visionary enabling and exaltation.
Halscheid is a writerly cousin to Jane Hirschfield, in her spiritual searching and pantheistic faith, but of a more ancient mythic orientation. She examines places where signs of past civilizations become visible, like in the Pueblos of New Mexico, on coastlines, or in Florida swamp forests.
The poems are often concentrated in minimalist lines. Rumi’s epigrammatic verses seem to be another influence, with the awe of earth and spiritual revelations familiar in this tradition. So too the ancient, spiritual love-songs of Kabir. But Halscheid’s poems roam and diverge beyond the Eastern focus — they present the contemporary woman in the illuminated forest; they move to the Biblical Fall (from Eden); and to a domestic garden where she has been house-sitting, where Light will rise — /begin to/ blow over/ the red quivering maple... (“Hot June,” pp.14-15) . Back to the modern city, she finds a city garden better than Eden: the square lot became an area of important earth... and the garden that grew there came from inside the two who created it all... (from “The City Garden,” p.20). Most importantly, ... the garden began to know itself/ as a forgotten way of being. Halscheid thus balances the opting toward a mystical “other” world with possibilities in real time and place.
Biblical references are included in service to human and natural phenomena, not the other way around, as in Western religious poetry of earlier centuries. In a more critical view of life on earth today, the poet sees that when the first two ... fell toward forgetting/ forgetting as they fell and formed roads on the earth, they could not find their way back/ to each other (“The Fall,” pp.8-9).
The poems also record particular moments at “Doe Run Farm” where she engages her thoughts of night, and human yearnings. A series in this collection includes scenes from railroad trains going West, then East, where one poem pauses to focus on a young woman valiantly summoning words to defend herself against a man with a gun. Breath-taking moment. Thus, the poems travel through the dark-lit passages of the human world, in their determined trajectories. They include personal scenes from childhood with a disabled father ... who had been a railroad man.
Tonight, everywhere, as trains move like snakes going out
in every direction
I think what must be passed and how they keep going
like a life, I suppose,
never attaching itself to what seems hard,
to survive, and how I have yet to settle down... (“The Train Continues, III,” pp.47-49)
There is a wandering and a coming back, a forest of silent voices and a constant line of human speech, a quiet retreat and a passionate assertion of what always is:
can still exist at the very old center of our lives. (also from “The Train Continues, III”)
The poems are transports into the actual world, despite their troping toward thematic otherliness. But they move also to the shadowy (southwest) locus of “the First People” who ... through their trusting, their chanting ... would watch the fireflies come out of the great sky’s silence.../ igniting the meadow... (“Nights Here,”pp.16-17). Halscheid deftly connects the very particular world — of fireflies in the open night, with the mythic world, where she feels closely connected, the world of the First People and their gold/ sinking god... (“Nights Here”), their ... round god/ who yellowed the sky (“Ancient Wealth,” pp.41-42).
Light is Halscheid’s visual medium, but the poems are crafted as things made of clay. Lines fit and separate and segue, making images stand apart, and merge. At a beach in Provincetown she observes men lying in rows in the hot sand, and sees their grief, knowing
by the way their chests work
the language of sorrow, that distinctive
rise and collapse
and in the way a hand moves
now and again in a pile
of pebbles (“Herring Cove Beach, Provincetown,” pp.33-34)
The poet uses space on her page and an inventive splaying of lines to reinforce the contexts of vastness and specificity, locale and light, here-ness and beyond. Such careful work draws the reader to the page, the listener to the slow song. In “The Metamorphosis of Balloons” she recreates the airy image of slow wafting, then the fall, as the balloons begin to quarrel then cackling/ where the sudden/ mad dirt of the earth/ swirled/ its anxious fist and they finally tangle in strings of grass — blade by blade (pp.25-26) . The iconic arrangement of line and space in this poem is quite marvelous.
Halscheid’s work brings the reader back in touch with great Eastern traditions of vision and sensibility; but at the same time it is firmly rooted in tough American soil. The work is visionary, but the focus returns to the immediate world. From this double perspective, of layered geography, the poet finds things to sing and to live by. “Calling the Elk” may be Halscheid’s “signature” poem; it demonstrates this complex vision:
Here, she would forget words for things
and after, beckon them differently.
No wild call, human cry —
this was of higher senses, this ability
to open the mind
to where thoughts could fly silent
on the lip of the wind.
How they flew then, out
from her, when she felt ready — (“Calling the Elk,” pp.69-70)
Halscheid celebrates the round earth and describes the attack on earth’s “gash and gouge.” She weaves a politics of preservation and reverence into her lyrical meditations. Although one can briefly sense a veering toward righteousness in protest against how we allow global warming, there is in this work more an expression of sympathy and community, of earth-awareness and common purpose: I keep writing/ in the airless attic... What the earth thinks of its sorry places— why the hot necks/ of flowers strain/ to carry out their delicate cry... And always the sense of earth’s glories rises:
Meanwhile, a fleeing river
Above, the cloudless sky. (also from “The Drought,” pp.12-13)
The collection presents odes and narratives, apostrophes and eulogies — her special kind of celebrations. They are tied by a threnody of reverence for the things inside this knowable world.
The long view is manifold everywhere in the book, but innerness is thematic. Things themselves are not sacred as such, but emblems of the hidden essence of spirit inside matter. There are many variations on this theme: as when a sudden light breeze has a voice locked inside (see quote above) . There is a persistent examination of the relationship of soul to body, of human spirit to “round earth,” and of earth, sun, moon — all perceived as sentient — feeling, thinking of us.
The craft is meticulous, the lines are melodious; the reader cannot sense the labor that made these images flow. And while the language is apt, it is never a distraction for itself. Through such careful work the world becomes — as through a clear window — all the more visible.
Motifs of light and dark play through these graceful meditations, and despite the declaration of the speaker’s apartness from the popular world, there is always a connection. Ancient levels of intimacy re-emerge from her defiance of the nature–vs.– civilization (oxymoronic) separation. As in Native American folklore, the “poemlore” of Halscheid’s work persists in connecting man and earth, visitor and elk, her own body and the forest.
The poet is the wanderer, as in the classic image of the bard as philosopher/ teacher/ entertainer. But the singer of these lilting, evocative inventions is ecologically rooted in place, in a number of places; the work is home-coming. It is fervently connected.