Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On Paulann Petersen's Understory

by Paulann Petersen
Lost Horse Press
Sand Point, Idaho
ISBN 978-0-9883166-2-1
2013, 182pp., $21.95

At more than 180 pages, Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen’s new book, Understory, offers readers an uncommon heft and promise in nine sections. As its opening poem suggests, it remarkably makes and remakes “a voyage of ascent.”

Two principles govern these poems. One is attention; the other is community. Reading these poems inculcates those principles, those habits – habits which would make any of us better people if we took them to heart. Attention encourages connection, and community requires it. Thus a good number of these poems begin in steady, patient observation, as in “Be a leaf, learn / to eat with your skin, / swallowing sun’s rankness / wherever it strikes you” – the opening stanza of “Synesthesia.”

What’s so modestly but surely pleasurable in this example is the surprise from line to line. What can you learn if you’re a leaf? Sunlight would be an obvious answer. The poem offers, however, how to “eat with your skin.” Oh, yes, I see – that’s one way to describe photosynthesis. This sort of surprise (surprise being always the antithesis of cliché) comes from a sure and unforced speaking voice as well as from a writer of uncommon perception, one who also knows how to elect lining and pace accurate to the material and the effects she seeks. Here’s the last stanza of that same short poem: “Savor light, that mother / to every sweetness. / Become the bee’s green sister, / the one who can taste / this world with her hands.” Sometimes just a preposition can make all the difference, as here, in the difference between what we might expect – a bee tasting the world on her hands – and what the poem gives us – a bee tasting the world with her hands.

Petersen also knows that appearances can be deceptive and that most of the time a larger and often invisible complexity informs them. Thus, in “Shape-Shifter,” the speaker sees and meets the mother of a woman getting married. The bride’s mother “wears her long gray hair pulled away / from her bone-shadowed face…” and she says to the speaker “Kate is my daughter.” Only later does the speaker learn that this woman was once a man, “her father, / now a woman,… / changed as a shaman might change / to be able to step near the spirits / without frightening them away.” Indeed, these poems also carry this same wish – to be able to observe and stay in patient questioning of what one sees – to try often to step near the spirits without frightening them away.

While Understory is a large book, its division into nine sections effectively mediates what might be a somewhat daunting first impression. Section II, for example, makes a sequence of poems invoking a girl’s memory of her parents: “I’m still that girl / hungry for her father’s talk,” and finding it, finding him “caught on a minute of shining / magnetic tape. On the wide-cast / net of longing” as this father’s voice speaks of how, once, he and other hired hands rode ponies “strung a Montana river,” dragging a net “behind them / through snow-melt, / seining for fish.” Nostalgia informs these poems, yet they’re also tinged with something akin to disbelief, a wonder that how what is gone is not gone, not quite, perhaps not at all. How does this work, ask the poems in this section. How does story-telling (a mother telling a story of her daughter, for example, when you’re the daughter, as in “Perspective”) – how does this speaking the past back into the present, how might this action make identity and, perhaps, wisdom? How does it hold something as slippery, valuable, and elusive as love’s tenderness, unselfishness, comfort, vividness, ache, and grief?

Even a brief discussion of Understory such as this is must include this book’s broad sweep of country and culture, as, for example, in part 4, titled “Shimmer and Drone.” Here we read poems based in an experience of India, a place quite different in history, culture, and weather from Paulann Petersen’s Pacific Northwest.

For a writer steeped in observation of landscape, such travel must offer daily and arresting experiences of what has not been known before. Even the moon looks different: “…upturned, / filling a late dusk’s violet-blue. / It’s a calligrapher’s single stroke / for and, and that curving sweep / from the Arabic pen -- / the word that’s written before all others, / a symbol that beckons us / to listen” (in “Beginning with And”). Here and in other poems like this one, Petersen the Northwesterner, Petersen the American, engages cultures deep with historical record, making her poems acts of encounter with what is other and sacred, from beggars to statues to an unfamiliar humidity and warmth. Here, as everywhere in this book, a fiercely deep curiosity works insistently to orient itself in settings at once unfamiliar and hence the opposite of mundane: "... A story begins with And. / Because it has never / ended, will never have to end." ("Beginning with And")

Paulann Petersen is now in her second term as Oregon Poet Laureate. Many of the poems in this book depend on and work from this Northwest locus. But finally, Understory becomes a book large with – and informed by – a keenly attentive generosity that transcends the regional. In terms of landscape, the book takes readers to Oregon, certainly, but also to places in India, Greece, and Turkey, to the paintings of Renoir (themselves their own places), and always to places of attention, places of the spirit, and to experiences that might (as the poem “Mechanistics” phrases it) “Be our answer / to what we believe we need, / be what we design.”

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