blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Chapbook Omnibus Review
Work by Ann Fisher-Wirth, Catherine MacDonald, Anna Ross, dg nanouk okpik, Cathy Tagnak Rexford, Brandy Nālani McDougall, and Mahealani Perez-Wendt

Shared history creates unbreakable bonds that can both constrain and empower. Each of the chapbooks reviewed here explores, with impressive scope and skill, what it means to belong, placing home within concentric cultural and generational circles. The homes in these seven chapbooks range from the Arctic to Hawaii and chronicle loss that is both private (pregnancy) and collective (language and land). Domestic abuse can mean violence within the nuclear family or to a land or nation. As disparate as the books are, the same night sky is over them all, by turns lit by “fireflies” and aurora, “purple flare” or “green vein,” and by the moon— “new,” “wide,” “full and white,” or “oblong.” The books thus manifest in unique forms the sameness and difference of home.

Finishing Line Press published the first three chapbooks reviewed below: Fisher-Wirth has three full-length collections, MacDonald and Ross are emerging writers. The remaining four chapbooks, also by emerging poets, are collected in Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing, Pacific Rim, 2009 by Salt Publishing UK.


Slide Shows by Ann Fisher-Wirth
Finishing Line Press, 2009

spacer Slide Shows by Ann Fisher-Wirth

In Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho wrote, “All my lofty pretenses and ambitions aside, my journey produced no poetry.” Slide Shows, however, is the product of a childhood journey to join an army father in postwar Japan.

The ten-line form of the poems suggests slides and hovers between sonnet and haiku, much as the speaker is temporarily situated between two cultures. Movement on the journey—by boat, bus, foot—mimics the movement of slides projected onto a screen. The poems often present an image—a woman near a temple wall with begging bowl, “doubled over / so her head touched the ground”—that impressed a child’s sensibilities and was retained for future examination, not unlike slides the father shows upon their return stateside.

Menace, real and imagined, informs the book: Under a typhoon warning, children on a bus watch as “out the rear window / the sky followed us, / darker and darker. Army green.” A corrugated metal shed was the scene of an imagined horror until “finally I stopped fearing / they had locked my father / in a quonset hut to torture him”; instead he “worked at a desk / behind a wooden plaque / that said Top Secret.”

The poems thus strive to illuminate two foreign cultures: Japan and the secret lives of parents, “our parents,” who, at the studio of a famous woodblock printer, “were looking / at pictures of mermaids / with seaweed-colored nipples.” Japanese culture remains inscrutable as the bright eyes of a boy with a “skinned weasel / slung around his shoulders.” “What was he doing. . . ?” One suspects Japanese children wondered the same thing when American children, “cultural ambassadors,” presented plays in English.

Then as now, tourists flock to watch the ancient method of cormorant fishing:

          From a narrow boat
we watched bobbing lanterns,
the great wings, firelight
scattered over the black river.

Inevitably, we observe other cultures from a narrow boat of understanding. Tight rings around the birds’ necks prevent them from swallowing fish they catch, just as limitations in childhood perception prevent understanding of received imagery. Such large messages invest this small book.

Ann Fisher-Wirth is the author of two books of poems: Blue Window (Archer Books, 2003) and Five Terraces (Wind Publications, 2005). She has also published the chapbooks The Trinket Poems (Wind, 2003) and Walking Wu Wei’s Scroll (Drunken Boat, 2005). Her poems have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Connecticut Review, ISLE, Solo, Feminist Studies, and RUNES. She teaches at the University of Mississippi.


How to leave home by Catherine MacDonald
Finishing Line Press, 2009

spacer How to leave home by Catherine MacDonald

If, as William Stafford wrote, “the world happens twiceonce what we see it as; second it legends itself deep, the way it is,” then How to leave home chronicles that legending. Scenes of a family’s domestic violence overlie the domestic violence of a nation where there were “Jesuits on the James. Smallpox / on a blanket in raw winter rain” and where slaves “buried / smooth stones…for conjuring.” MacDonald knows that “we’ve carried the past / like a ticking time-bomb to this very day.”

Of parents, she writes, “What we didn’t tell, they / discovered. What we thought we’d concealed, / they already knew.” With the help of literary (Leda, Pinocchio) and historical (Frederick Douglass) figures, MacDonald both tells and conceals her speaker’s family history, acknowledging that stories can be as twisted as the pretzels she used to sell with May, the pretzel lady, who likewise “tells . . . stories, / which are not unlike the pretzels we bake, / wrap, and sell at the mall: big ones with twists / and holes—and salty, very salty.” So MacDonald tells of “relatives dead or undone. Jackie the addict / . . . Donna, a rusty redhead, schizophrenic . . . cousins who climbed steel week-long, smoked / crack after Mass.”

History happens “in this raw corner of a no-rank town” of the speaker’s childhood, but also on the banks of a river where “once two hundred soldiers crouched / here above the torrent.” Who gets to tell the history? In this collection it is “the unreliable narrator” of the first poem: “I am someone / who remembers everything you forgot / to mention. But don’t depend on me.” In the history of the world it is those “in the winner’s circle” who get to tell the prevailing version of history, even as they “wrestle . . . for relics, then devise a costume / appropriate for the weather: suitable / badges, bone buttons, hooks / to facilitate closure.”

Closure is elusive. The past is not as readily removed as appliances from a flooded basement where men tie “thick and beautiful knots / of heavy rope, the geometry of eyebolt / and derrick, pulley, tackle, and sling . . . balance the shifting load / above their shoulders, shout: Away.” All that is to be done is to “treat the stains that remain” as from a week’s worth of family laundry.

“Is it / enough?” someone asks when shopping to break a Ramadan fast. The reader of this chapbook is left hungry for more.

Catherine MacDonald lives in Richmond, Virginia, and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square, The Cortland Review, storySouth, Crab Orchard Review, Southern Indiana Review, and other journals.


Hawk Weather by Anna Ross
Finishing Line Press, 2009

spacer Hawk Weather by Anna Ross

Hawk Weather explores the limits of loss, an attempt to find direction when disoriented by grief. From the first poem, “Evidence,” with its elk’s “skull nosing / the green suggestion of water / in the run-off ditch the elk was drinking from / when it fell,” Ross establishes a context against which to examine evidence of more private loss—that of a pregnancy: “Little yolk, fly-speck, web / unworked.”

Carefully controlled language offers a stay against the confusion that arises when circumstances are beyond one’s control: the “tiny, sugary cathedrals” of grapes, the “quiet marshalling of color up the stalk” of blooming gladiolas or “air tight with ignition” before the coming of a storm. Absence becomes presence as when the beds of deer found in the morning appear as “oval bowls / pressed into the grass.” The natural world offers more consolation than the inner domesticity of “our house . . . its collection of rocks and worry,” especially when “even the doormat has birthed feathery mushrooms.”

Ross searches for signs of hope even in the midst of disaster: “the black bear cub they rescued— / his scorched paws bandaged, / tongue a blurred pink flag,” the assurance that “lupine is the first to grow after a fire.” Nonetheless, a gliding hawk can still invoke both “a spirit rising” and a “brute arrow.” Seen through the lens of loss, “a doe / beside the highway, her fawn caught behind, waiting to cross” instills painful anxiety in both Ross and reader. How to live when life is so tenuous? Ross suggests a quest for equilibrium:


Learning to cross a log
over a fast stream
is a way to know grief:
the body following the mind
toward earth,
the eyes always ahead,
the arms outstretched,
the hands open—
weighted with air.

In the final crown of sonnets an owl “caught against the barbs, / its skull all beak and socket, / the wing still feathered” becomes at once description of a bird and keening for the lost child. In the last stanza, the anaphora “If” repeats the unbearable ache of what is against what might have been. A collection that might have run to maudlin in a lesser poet’s hand is, instead, an accomplished and moving elegy and, ultimately, a celebration of life. In a very real sense, Ross’s personal loss becomes our poetic gain.

Anna Ross’ poetry has been published in a number of journals, including The New Republic, The Paris Review, Southwest Review, AGNI, and Salamander, and her translations have appeared in Poetry Wales and Rattapallax. Ross was the recipient of the 2004 GSU Review poetry prize. She lives in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where she teaches poetry and writing at Boston University and Grub Street, Inc.


Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing, Pacific Rim, 2009
Salt Publishing, UK

spacer Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing, Pacific Rim, 2009

This volume collects four individual chapbooks by authors of Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian decent under the title Effigies, edited and introduced by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke.

Taken individually, each chapbook sings. Taken as a whole, the anthology is a chorus of witness—to cultural survivance and literary excellence.

The chapbooks are reviewed in the order in which they appear in the collection.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, in addition to being an editor, is a poet, nonfiction writer, and teacher of writing and indigenous literatures. She holds an AFA from the Institute for American Indian Arts, an MFA from Vermont College, and a professional performing arts certiticate from Estelle Harmon’s Actors Workshop. Hedge Coke holds the Distinguished Paul & Clarice Reynolds Endowed Chair of Poetry & Writing at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her previous books include 1998 American Book Award winner Dog Road Woman (Coffee House Press, 1997), Off-Season City Pipe (Coffee House Press, 2005), Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer (University of Nebraska Press, 2004), and Blood Run (Salt Publishing, 2007). Effigies is her seventh edited edition.


In the Time of Okvik by dg nanouk okpik

In the frontispiece poem to the book, okpik situates her writing: “In the time of origin, in the formation of inuk, while the living await relatives to come back; I scribble these stories in a box.” We have been duly warned. This is no tourist cruise to Alaska, but a cold look at the dual crisis of climate change and greed for oil that threatens not only animals, but a people, since cultural traditions depend on the environment: “No longer can we . . . dictate climate for whaling.” Instead, “we live now like thick crude, sluggish like snails / . . . as oil leaks into salt sea blood.”

okpik’s style is smooth as ice. Yet, like the ice itself, her poetry can shift and even break: “you collapse your voice into small fractures of ice.” She can melt and meld her voice in return to the Okvik period of chipped blade and carving or again to the mythic realm of Sedna, goddess and deity of marine animals. okpik’s assessment of the urgency of the situation is clear: “to repay Sedna will be a lifetime of parkas.”

No concession to outsiders occurs here; no tribal secrets are revealed as “shamans holler and pound the bones on a stone bowl.” The ceremonial house holds “a hole / in the ceiling for smoke and prayers to rise together in song.” These poems sing, but they also dance—behind carved wooden mask or in mukluks and parka—and even the dancing is a telling by a “storyteller in the yellowed / mind of matter, halt and pivot.” Dancing is spiritual expression: “dancing in the midnight sun not for law, / or man, but for whale and blood.”

These poems can be disorienting, like a “dazed whiteout,” for those not familiar with the culture. No glossaries here. If this seems harsh, so, too, is the environmental crisis, and anyway, she writes a story larger than herself:

It comes back to the Inuit me—
images in the mirror are closer than they appear
on my kayak skin boat. I was forged by sea salt
by snow hammered into iron ore red herring.

okpik may challenge some readers beyond their comfort zone, but efforts to acclimate to this challenge will be more than rewarded. “Grandfather said: drink the icy, glacier water.” Drink these icy, glacier poems. They are just as necessary and bracing.

dg nanouk okpik’s poetry has appeared in Touchstone, Red Ink and Ahani: Indigenous American Poetry. She is the recipient of the Truman Capote Literary Trust Award, as well as scholarships from Naropa University and the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference. okpik, an Inupiat-Inuit Alaskan Native, is currently completing her MFA at the University of Southern Maine.


Black Ice by Cathy Tagnak Rexford

Tagnak Rexford documents the people and places of Northern Alaska, using a wide-angle lens that captures images others miss or misinterpret. Of an extinct bird, “an image . . . never filmed” she “will write the movement of wings, and . . . will write a blood sky so he may trace the line of horizon.” Several poems employ the imagery of photography to stunning effect. The Ikpikpak river itself is used to develop a photograph:

“I submerge my photograph. Sifting itself / from the current, the negative space crackles into / the image of a tundra swan.”

Whether “in 16 mm film” or “double exposure” Rexford’s work itself embodies “the lyric of . . . documentary.” She controls what we see: “in the middle of the street, your left foot / on the painted white line, your right / on the edge of a melting polar icecap” and invokes what we can’t see but for her telling:

my eyes close into the turquoise ice
below arctic waters as I stand in line
at the grocery store, one foot balanced
on the cart, waiting.

Yet the “concrete nightmares” of the city do not dispel the “tones of old ice.”

Her work underscores the belief that only the members of a culture are qualified to document and interpret its images, even when such restoration arrives “by hypnosis.” Outsiders are like people looking at a print on the wall of a museum who “carefully tilt their heads distilling meaning from underexposure.” In the final, title poem, a “six-story- tall landfill on tundra that / never knew plastic or battery acid” exposes environmental crisis. The car wreck itself seems an apt metaphor of hurtling toward unforeseen environmental disaster:

They cannot hear as I whisper to them that this is where
the bone split out of skin. They cannot hear as I
tell them the black ice hit going sixty-five miles
an hour was the first time they said, no.

A no to environmental destruction is equally a no to cultural endangerment where there is a “whalebone mask in a shadow of an oil rig.”

The poems’ appearance on the page underscores the visual/photographic quality of Tagnak Rexford’s writing; use of white space suggests the snowy land that grounds her work. She gives us the “picture not yet taken” even as she “splice[s] together” “stories / of wild geese that married men” with “Eskimo song.” In doing so she honors a “skinsewing lineage” responsible for crafting a “sealskin boot / unspoiled for / one thousand years / entombed in shelf ice . . . proof that a stitch endures.” Tagnak Rexford’s writing is of the same enduring thread and just as strong.

Cathy Tagnak Rexford’s poetry appears in the anthologies Ahani: Indigenous American Poetry (Oregon State University, 2007) and To Topos Poetry International (Poetry Enterprises, 1999). Her work appears in several journals, including Red Ink and Oregon Literary Review. Rexford lives in Alaska, where she works with the non-profit organization Native Movement.


Return to the Kula House by Brandy Nālani McDougall

McDougall’s work traces the biography not only of a family, but also of a land and people, whose native language was banned as recently as 1986. She incorporates many Hawaiian words and phrases into her poems, proving that “English could never replace / the land’s unfolding song.” Nor can an inanimate velvet bust under museum glass replace the human breast once held by the special pendant Lei Niho Palaoa, made with human hair and prayers: “So, sit proudly in your museum room. / Your people will come for you soon.” Language and culture are not artifacts; they arise from the land itself. Land that is merely a photo op for tourists is a “sacred place” that “awaken[s] / the lost beginnings of my blood . . . my dream of lava touching ocean.”

This book chronicles McDougall’s coming-of-age as a writer, able to tell not only her own story, but that of the red hibiscus:

you . . . listen closely, as she begins the story of her birth—
from calyx to pistil, filament to corolla—opening the folds
of her thin-veined petals to reveal the light deep in her throat.

Yet the burdens inherent in the gift of telling, like the Kukui nut, are “dark-shelled secrets / that have bent me under their weight.” One such secret harbors a crime beyond the legal statute of limitations, but McDougall does not write as a victim: “sometimes there is no justice, / but every day, there is fire and light.” There may be legal limitations, but there are no spiritual limitations; ghosts wake sleepers from their dreams and laugh from the forests. Golf courses that cover graves cannot confine spirits any more than museums can confine the indigenous spirit, “our bright belonging.” Even when “there are no visible remnants” of the history of a place, there is still

                      the spirit of memory
         that stirs the air,
                                             dark and heavy
like a broth strained from the living

body of before

Fire is a dominant image. The haunting double sestina in the title poem describes the return to a family home destroyed by fire. Elsewhere, “empires burn to ashes / in a fire of their own making /and will only be forgotten in the end.” Though fire destroys, it is also the genesis—and continual rejuvenating force—of the enduring islands. The book that began “before the earth spurted fire, birthed islands” ends with words of Pele, volcano goddess, “The first word was mine. / The last word is mine.” McDougall’s own words burn with bright and lasting witness.

Brandy Nalani McDougall is the author of the poetry collection The Salt Wind: Ka Makani Pa’Akai (Kuleana Oiwi Press, 2008). She is the publisher of ‘Oowi: A Native Hawaiian Journal, assistant editor for Kuleana ‘Oiwi Press, and the cofounder of the University of Hawaii’s student-run press, Kahuaomanoa. A Fulbright scholar, McDougall is pursuing her PhD at the University of Hawaii.

Papahanaumoku by Māhealani Perez-Wendt

It was in the shelter
Of your sweet bosom
We told our stories
But you seem now
Stolid, impenetrable
Worn down
Not by rivers
Dear Mother,
We would sing again

Perez-Wendt sings for the bones of ancestors dug up—“skull in one box / leg bone in another”—to make room for mega-stores. In this poem, “Bury Our Hearts at Wal-Mart, etc.,” she employs apostrophe to powerful effect: “O, The sands of my birth /  The sands of my birth / Are digging places.” She favors short lines with first letters capitalized, along with repetition and rhyme. This gives her poetry a formal quality that reinforces the dignity of people’s stories, such as that of a worker who loads kalo onto a truck after harvest and who utters and mutters the theme of the book:

And I don’t like being on display
How would you feel
If strangers came to your hole
And watched your every move?
This is my home, my roots—
What they doing is uprooting.

The significance of land (“Someone fucks with your land / You shoot ‘em”) is evidenced again and again. In several persona poems, Wendt’s unsentimental narratives contrast tourist stereotype with cultural practice. “Calvary at ‘Anaeho‘omalu” describes a resort’s Christmas tree decked out with kitsch versions of Hawaiian dance:

The whole show
Razzle dazzle electric,
Undulating, haole hula,
to soft offshore breezes.

Of course Hawaiian dance did not originate as a tourist show, but as sacred storytelling, and the poem ends by reasserting indigenous primacy against outsiders’ fantasies:

Voices rise out of shadows
And intone an ancient cadence:
E Laka e,
Pupu weuweu
E Laka e,
‘Ano‘ai aloha e
‘Ano‘ai aloha e
‘Ano‘ai aloha e

No translation is provided, but the message is clear enough: this is our story to tell by way of our own language and traditions. After all, “We fought for America / Almost got killed / No have to take / This shit.”

Nature is therefore not a backdrop to some scenic postcard, but an integral part of work, whether harvesting kalo or laying net for fish. In “Oblong Moon,” we read of Harry Pahukoa, who died of a heart attack while driving up from Honomanu after laying nets before the full moon. A week later, on the day they buried Harry, the moon

    was stretched out
Along the horizon
It was big and
Put out a lot of light
I watched it rise.

These poems likewise put out a lot of light.

Mahealani Perez-Wendt is the author of Uluhaimalama (Kuleana Oiwi Press, 2008). Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing (Salt, 2009). She is the recipient of the 1993 Cades Literary Award from the Hawai’i Literary Arts Council.


Effigies, then, is a rare privilege: a journey by poetry into Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian cultures and histories. As different as each poet is, each is joined by the relationship to the Pacific Rim and by a gift for representing home to readers who might otherwise only visit as tourists. How to leave home, Slide Shows, and Hawk Weather likewise afford the reader entry into lives and places that may seem familiar, yet ultimately reveal the mystery and strangeness inherent within any family home, nuclear or national. These chapbooks all suggest that while you might not be able to go home again, you can be sure that home goes with you, a thought both comforting and discomfiting.  end

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