Leaps for the Common Life
New and recent books from New Mexico poets
My mother told me years ago poetry turns emotion into words, but like anything worth exploring, poetry isn't nearly so simple.
Four recent collections by New Mexico poets push the genre into places never imagined by those high school lit students who happily abandoned it after required memorizing of “ Richard Corey” or “ O Captain! My Captain!” Santa Fe poet Matt Donovan’s Bakeless Prize-winning Vellum, with its flawless balletic leaps and unexpected yet perfectly executed connections, is the standout, but the other three books offer their own delights.
As Mark Doty points out in his foreword to Vellum (Mariner), “Donovan’s is a serious, companionable poetry, and his book—as the best art does—harrows and consoles at once … mirror(ing), brilliantly, something of how it is to live.”
Whether he’s explicating saints or sinners, Donovan hones his lines until they cut both ways. In “Second Pilgrimage, Rodeo Nites,” a drunken group staggers out of a Santa Fe bar to a “back lot between Rodeo Nites & the Cactus Lodge Motel,” where a flashlight-bearing waitress illuminates a tree full of bats:
… we were all transfixed,
stock-still & knowing—what? Nothing, I think, beyond the moment’s
sheer improbable fact, the out-of-nowhere, inscrutable this
in which we’re dazzled by a shivering thing …
Donovan’s poems aren’t of the comfortable, feel-good variety—the titular vellum (a specially prepared leather) is described in excruciating detail, beginning with the animal’s flaying—but his theme, that beauty arises from the most homely of beginnings, is explored in a poetry both assured and ineffable.
The poems in Corrales poet Bobbi Lurie’s Letter From the Lawn (Custom Words) at times seem to channel a latter-day Emily Dickinson or a suburban Robert Frost, her words accumulating weight and mass by their very spareness. Lurie’s poetry is not upbeat; it traffics in the loneliness and despair of postmodern life. Nonetheless, each poem yearns toward its own particular transcendence through metaphor pushed one step beyond the obvious, as here, in “Transparent”:
She loved him so much she had become transparent
as a crystal vase filled with flowers withering in
the opaqueness of his gaze each morning …
This collection is occasionally uneven, with weaker poems sometimes providing mere ballast. But the strongest have the cumulative effect of reminding readers of their own dislocation and discomfort in today’s world.
While Albuquerque’s Jason L. Yurcic’s back-of-book biography reads like the plot of a made-for-TV movie gone awry—father murdered in prison, gang-influenced childhood, climb from illiterate to poet—the poems in Word Son (Emaya Publishing) offer redemptions of the everyday kind. An excerpt from his poem “Nothing” provides an example:
I have no money
But there is enough gas in the tank
To pick up the children from school …
It would be easy to dismiss Yurcic’s work as sophomoric, but there is a mature poetic sensibility here, one that acknowledges the responsibilities of both the parent and the artist at work.
From the other side of the city, both physically and psychically, comes retired UNM Professor David M. Johnson’s Rebirth of Wonder: Poems of the Common Life (UNM Press). As Johnson himself notes in an introduction, “I discovered that epiphanies resulted from crossing some kind of boundary, leaving behind the telephone and my usual identity.” While the first part of the book unfolds his childhood in Minnesota, Johnson discovers many of his epiphanies when far from home. “Maps” explores this:
In love with maps, ordinary road maps, with tiny tables
for rest areas, red teepees for campgrounds
I search for a white van along a Mexican highway and find
a crushed rose hidden in the fold …
Selected by V.B. Price for UNM Press’ Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series, Rebirth of Wonder is, despite its more exotic settings, the most pedestrian of these collections. Poetry transcends borders in its connections to others, and that each of these collections will connect with a very different reader is testament to poetry's power and resilience.