Review of Uncommon Geography: RHINO magazine
Review of UNCOMMON GEOGRAPHY
Carpenter Gothic Publishers, Box 714, Island Heights, NJ 08732, 77 pages, $15.00
─ Jackie K. White, RHINO editor
“There will be more than one pilgrimage,” writes Therése Halscheid in her poem, “Excavating Prayers,” first published in RHINO 2006, and each of the three sections in her collection, as well as most of the individualized poems themselves, seems to enact a kind of pilgrimage. Together the poems suggest the epic hero quest in motifs that arise from, and cause us to see in the everywhere, an Uncommon Geography. Indeed, variations on the word “awareness” and other kinds of vision recur throughout the poems along with insistent images of light and a call to transcend “doubt.” That tension -- between prayerful seeing and doubt -- mark every journey and, as the poems note, our daily living, and, as many of us probably feel, the times in which we live. Those tensions also call for “those who know how to speak of this, [to] now speak of this,” for “the wording will come alive then” (“Prayers”) and with it, “the ability to open the mind.” Clearly, Halscheid risks the contemplative and the sublime -- much on the order of Hopkins or, more recently, Mary Oliver. Gratefully, she does so without falling into easy platitudes or slack language; she knows, “that what is simple seems so hard to do,” and she describes that difficult simplicity in tautly crafted and energetically meditative lyrics.
On a simple level, the reader can discover (or learn from the back cover) that these lyrics derive from Halscheid’s house-sitting travels. The first and longest section speak most clearly from those myriad places, moving geographically from east to west. But Halscheid weaves in, as well, the old challenges of mythological places, from the biblical “Fall” and “drought,” into the fairy-taled “forest” and the implied mystical/mythical traditions of New Mexico clay and stone. She also grounds readers in the contemporary “city garden,” aging parents, and the modernity of the “train,” drawing on a line from another RHINO poet, Mike Chasar. This is one of my favorites -- clearly a personal poem, yet it carries a recognition that speaks to and for all of us as we seek
... without a home, like a hobo continuing
my father's belief that
the way of the railroad is the way of the world --
nothing, once having arrived, will stay
and what leaves
can still exist at the very old center of our lives.
(“The Train Continues”)
And it sets up the second section in which the pilgrimage seems to begin again, southward, into the swamp, not with a sense of unwelcoming, but moist and fecund, moving with the “vibrancy of ferns” and with those “Excavating Prayers” referenced above.
The third section, a sequence of seven poems in the “Voice of Air,” also carries biblical overtones yet with a pantheist attitude that comes from “Calling the Elk” (have we moved northward?) and a quotidian grounding in one setting, Doe Run Farm. Part of the richness here is in the subtle use of dramatic monologue as the “Air” speaks to the speaker and to us, not always gently as we might expect, but rather with the urgency we need to hear: “wake up! wake up! // where you are” (“floating breath”). Implied here, a new seeing, a settling. The final subtitle, “changing the atmosphere” is, of course, what the speaker’s journey has led her to, and, it seems to me the function of poetry, why we read it:
it is that easy, and hard
has always come
through simple motions
("In Simple Skin")