by Greg Kuzma
The Sky is Shooting Blue Arrows, by Glenna Luschei, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2014, 90 pages, $18.95 paperback, unmpress.com.
THE OPENING POEMS FEEL fragmented, tentative, more like disassembled notes, almost shy. "Rivers/ dogs with copper eyes.…/ Bonfires./ Wigwams." ("The Tinder Box") Then I begin to notice that for this poet, who is eighty years old, scenes from her distant past are interlaced with immediate attentions, and the two combine to become a perpetual present. My first instinct had been to wedge marginal notes on the pages in order to establish contexts, plot a narrative or decipher a poetics, but now I steep myself in total immersion. (Is not all time a ready companion?)
As if she has read my mind, on page 14 she steps forth with her first relaxed, straightforward, journalistic, declarative sentence: "When my children's teeth pushed through with sawtooth edges/ I walked crooked sidewalks toward my childhood." ("Sidewalks") Later in this poem Luschei, as if she's enjoyed being in a groove, gives us more:
Grasshoppers ate the harvest that year. Grandmother stripped
off sheets to cover her cucumber patch.
Families packed up, drove West with nothing but songs.
They survived, left us to tell their stories.
Now the book begins to frame its comprehensive vision with new things like walking around in saguaros, dodging rattlesnakes in New Mexico or Arizona, actions which require the careful placing of our feet, hence that earlier pieced and precarious diction, while the New Yorkerish prose is called upon to embody in summary the accumulated wisdom of decades of reflection. It's not clear the poet is aware of these two languages as being so distinctively separate, but as she unites them they embody within the book a healing reconciliation. Juxtapositions of contrasting landscapes and experiences over decades blend in what becomes a heartfelt embrace.
One of the expressions of this healing bodes forth in "Standing in Line":
I am just waiting in my place
behind the others. No shoving.
Will I go gentle like the ones
who went before?
The glancing reference to Thomas is casual; this is not a literary book. Nor is her posture here an existential scream but more like common courtesy. Facing poems on pages 20 and 21, "Terrycloth" and "Claim" respectively, balance simple body comfort in a bathrobe in our left eye with land claim and settlement myths and the "prairie schooner" journey on the right:
unafraid, staked his claim
and made his dugout home.
Retracing these steps,
engravings in the stone,
back to the home in Happy Valley, North
Carolina, where my husband's family lived
for seven generations.
After the Civil War, the brothers, California bound,
shipped their pianos around the cape.
The sisters and the mothers filed to the Pacific
Ocean to do their wash.
They dried long skirts on cypress branches.
Cattle ate the cloth for salt.
This twinning across the pages of the opened book is amusingly surreal, the cloth robe of the poet's body comfort, perhaps last week, "becomes" cattle feed in 1870!
Another "verso/recto" experience, a far more consequential one, follows with pages 22 and 23. "With Bill in hospital/ my dog and I reverted/ to Bohemia" begins "Back to the Cave" to the left, and then in "Live Oak Forest" Bill has died:
But you were still beneath the muslin sheet.
When they pulled it from your face I adored
your warm freckled shoulders
as I always did, your oaken scent.
Luschei begins to do heavy lifting here, one-third into the book. At the same time, I start to wonder if her language is adequate to these bigger moments. The ambiguity of "still" and the plurasignation of "warm" may or may not be flaws in the writing, and may or may not be components of what is an all-embracing vision.
Here is the note I wrote to myself in red ink at the bottom of page 23 my first time through this book two weeks ago: "Luschei does not lament the brevity of our lives but rather discloses a mind in which everything seems to exist in a vivid present tense. She does not interject for the purpose of juxtaposition on behalf of tension or to show disruption but to underscore continuity."
Another aspect of this book's vision is stated in "Pruning": "I'm willing to submit/ to pruning or to wildness." An ars poetica? Suddenly that early clipped, pieced look to the opening poems flashes anew. Is their jaggedness evidence of an overstudied attention, or do they express pure wildness with all its broken edges?
What seems brimful in personal/historical reciprocation begins to become, as well, a travel guide with "Clouds of Cambodia" on page 26: "We walk barefoot through the jungle, splash/ through the streets." And then this epiphany:
It is my time to be reborn, to take refuge as a crone,
to sweep the Buddhist temple with a broom
made of twigs.
Luschei finds no culture foreign; she partakes of the physicality of places even while participating in their legends and their myths. Hers is an intellectual and spiritual aliveness where any and every event, however routine (like rain) is steeped in its ramifications.
In "Resurrection of Wildness" she invokes Thoreau. Is he to be our expert on "wildness"? Typically in The Sky is Shooting Blue Arrows every point of inception opens into more questions. Is this "wildness" that we seek also endangered by our pursuit of it? But also is this dream wildness that of "…a frightened bird/ beating in your throat," which may disclose the savage heart of Darwin's regime of the fittest?
If the West's Thoreau provides as many questions as answers, perhaps the East may complete the picture ("Leaving It All Behind"):
Ripped meniscus in my knee
I climb to reach the reclining Buddha and pray
for his blessing, "Let me settle my husband's estate."
Will her "three step/ daughters" "grant me forgiveness and grace"? Results seem mixed, and she continues searching. A fortuneteller "made me choose three sticks before I got/ one he dared to read." "Still not great."
That's all right. I accept my destiny. I accept that all is illusion,
As with any book of poems separate stabs in the dark begin to overlap and link up. In "Linda Lu's Moonwalk Dream," Linda dreams she kicked the moon, and then in another poem Linda and the moon are friends again, Linda now wishing "The moon can keep you company" "now since Vavoo died." As this poet opens herself to everything, she helps her readers to "let your ashes go."
In the next several pages of poems we enter the red rock canyons of Utah and go in drift boats fishing for steelheads "on the Rogue River." But as we remember from the master template of this book every "going" over actual landscapes or through them sparks the other journeying. In "Passage" the poet writes:
I want to go simply
in the muslin shroud I cut
when I sewed my baby's layette.
I did not know if I would survive childbirth.
As it was, she died before me.
Such ironies haunt us all, and should drive everyone to the introspections of poetry.
The last word on page 35 is the name "Nizar," who we learn is Nizar Qabanni, the presiding spirit of Part II, "Turkish Delight." Now we leave behind so much: the difficult goings over uneven ground, carrying watchword family histories, emboldened to look west as her grandmothers did, carrying Walden with her to guide her, invoking Robinson Jeffers overlooking the Pacific, arguing with Tom McGrath's love/north equation, even communing with The Buddha. Nizar is the new mentor! "I used to be jealous, Nizar," Glenna tells him. And Nizar answers her as we might guess he would: "You take life too seriously." But then in the last poem in Part II she pushes beyond him: "And now, Nizar, we have to deal/ with getting old/ while the soul is always young." All these questions, all this questing, puts me in mind of the great scene with Oscar Wilde at some notable Victorian dinner table, explaining to a once-beautiful, once-young, still-rich lady to applause and delight: "The trouble with you, Margaret, is not that you are old, but that you are young."
Part III is "Loud and Clear," a kind of 4G broadcast with all the AT&T towers lined up! The new wise man is Badger, "Stout of heart, mild of will,/ orphan brother of the bear." Again she looks to and honors earned wisdom, humbling herself in the process. In "Blessing of the New Fountain" she discovers and proclaims, "the first woman of America was water.…/ Thank you, mother, you who taught Helen Keller/ to read, you who poured all our elements/ into our hands." Keller the ultimate symbol for our all but helpless, blind and deaf, humanity.
"West to Gain Our Freedom" (page 53) returns us to the historical journalism of "Claim." It's another database, one of many in this last section of The Sky is Shooting…. These are information poems, context poems, where time is compressed into summaries or the poet focuses on best examples, in other words, keen moments in the memories of an eighty-year-old woman. And again it's no great matter that "The freeway plowed through my Victorian childhood house." Reading this book makes me aware of how much age-ism has infected where we look for the best American poetry—always to first books by poets in their twenties, always, and so wrongly, the new new thing, instead of the wealth of wisdom one finds here, in a book that will be lucky to be reviewed even once in a major journal. But then conflict fascinates, and harmony and acceptance seem dull in contrast. Do we not need to know how to "cherish all, forgive all"?
"My Father and Ava Gardner" opens into a world I do not tire of: "My mother played piano for the golden silent/ movies in Tombstone, Arizona, where she taught/ school by day." (Which might well be Glenna Luschei's contribution to the award-winning "Story Project" that is enriching our awareness of history as told from the bottom up, rather than from top-down historians.) It's one of the most detailed, informative, and longest of the information poems. Just ten years younger than the poet as I am, the closer I get to becoming history, the more it matters to me; no biography or two-page poem can ever be too long!
While data serves as the hard rock foundation of this book, some of the stories presented are startlingly surprising and deliciously liquid. "Potsherd," rather than about picking through Indian relics in New Mexico, tells of a recent love affair that feels more like that of a college girl. It delights in that flurry of losing her "amethyst earring in his bed," her "scarf from the British Museum." He breaks up with her, and the potsherd is revealed to be his espresso machine left in her kitchen, "Model XP 1020 Krups." Part III brims with such renewals. In "Angels/ Albuquerque" Luschei brings together a recent bicycle ride through park sprinklers with a reminiscence of riding her little boy (decades ago) on her bike, where he catches his foot in the spokes. A man comes immediately to their rescue:
He must have been one of those angels
there for my salvation.
Now and then they appear when I need them most.
Such a happy confidence; American poetry is redeemed in it.
The signature poem in this book is "Golden Jubilee for Aimee Semple McPherson." It prisms a light well beyond my experience:
I never got to be you, but couldn't I buy the house your faithful built
on Lake Elsinore…
This poem, happily, brings out the Nick Carraway (from The Great Gatsby) in me. Earlier she writes:
As a child you delivered sermons to friends. Me too, even to my cat
and to my canary Richard (which the cat ate).…
…I wrote a play about him.
But then we all know the child is mother to the poet. Writing a play about the cat that eats her pet canary embodies the exuberant, all-healing power of this book, and may well be the primary source of its brimming sweetness.
Greg Kuzma is a prolific writer; his poetry and critical essays have been published in Poetry, Shenandoah, Poetry Northwest, Crazy Horse, Prairie Schooner, and numerous other journals, his many poetry books include Good News, The Buffalo Shoot, Village Journal, and For My Brother. His third and brand new volume of longer meditative poems, Only the Dead are Forgiven, is forthcoming. Mountains of the Moon and All That is Not Given is Lost are his previous collections of longer poems. His recent collection of criticism is Robert Frost: Six Essays in Appreciation. Greg Kuzma recently retired from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as Professor Emeritus.