Monday, November 12, 2012

Monday Muse Reads 'The Wishing Tomb'

Every city has its history. New Orleans contains its history in its stories, sometimes tellings of great pain and suffering, and in the vivid and memorable new collection of poems The Wishing Tomb (Perugia Press, 2012) by Amanda Auchter, those stories can leave you aching, even as they spiral  with enchantment.

The Wishing Tomb is Auchter's second full collection (she's also published The Glass Crib and a chapbook Light Under Skin) but the first by the author I've read. What I find remarkable about the 50 poems is how the story in each, no matter how far back the poet reaches, seems unfixed in time, as if rendered by some magic to feel new again. This is the mark of a storyteller in love with her rough-and-tumble subject. Not only does the poet frequently take on the voice of her characters, embodying the narrative arc of the "I" in personal perspective and feeling, but she also clearly delineates the protagonist of the entire collection, which is, of course, water: the lure of it, its essentiality, its defiance of our efforts to harness it, its potential to become a ferocious tool of nature that quickly will slam us down when we go beyond what we think we control. In water lies the personification of New Orleans. It is New Orleans's witness.

The collection is divided into three unnamed but numbered sections that serve mostly as a means to order New Orleans's long, messy, and often violent history, beginning before its founding and stretching to a period post-Katrina. While one certainly may read from The Wishing Tomb at random, the cumulative power of the collection derives from reading it beginning to end. The accessibility of the poems, the variance of the stories, the colorful cast of the city's denizens all make for an overall strong collection. While the poems work together beautifully to create a complete portrait of New Orleans, reading all of them straight through does point up instances where an image becomes somewhat overworked, too similar to its first appearance to restartle the senses anew (for example, the uses of the words "tongue" to describe an aspect of water or the description of musical notes as "decanted") but this is a minor quibble. Auchter is skillful in taking advantage of her knowledge of southern flora and fauna to craft often-stunning lines.

The opening poem, "Letter to Comte de Pontchartrain, December, 1697", is striking, putting that protagonist water front and center:

The question is water, how to shadow // this slow tongue that collects // in hill and dale, wild cattle. To build / a city made of birds, cotton, rain- // lit houses. . . .

Auchter employs imagery familiar to anyone who's traveled to or stayed any time in New Orleans; she beautifully evokes the place where you "sweat / at midnight, your body a seething // sea." ("Letter"); where ". . . the bone-pale hours keep // the broken down / broken down: // a sugar-mouthed girl / on Esplanade with a man in her throat, / a blade in her shoe. . . ." ("The Chicken Man Walks the Quarter"); where "sugared air // . . . seeps its way through / the streets. The scrolled iron balconies, / banana-leaved courtyards, gas lamps draped // with bright plastic beads. . . ." ("The City That Care Forgot") and "Inside the ceramic city a man // decants a few notes on a sax / under the black and white / Bourbon Street sign. . . ." ("New Orleans Snow Globe"). This is a city that even as it lives and breathes, it's dying a little, defiant and holding on.

Auchter writes with a lyricism absent from much contemporary poetry. Some of the poems are wonderful to read aloud. Auchter's details are concrete, and it is these details that invest so many of her poems with a sense of deep and genuine feeling for the city and its inhabitants, past and present. When she writes, "They have been known // to make a man disappear. They will call you / coon and boy." ("A Brief History with Documents"), you know that New Orleans, for all its savage Southern beauty, is to be feared. When she exhorts, "Tell me how to speak to suffering, where / to toss the slivers of a body already broken." ("Wind Prayer"), you understand the necessary modulation of emotion, how prayer becomes as evanescent as the wind that carries it and forces you to your knees. When she admits, while visiting and touring by bus, that ". . . Part of me wants to see // the weight of so much disaster. . . Part of me / wants to . . . walk away." ("Gray Line Katrina Tours"), you get the fascination with death and destruction even as you abhor yourself for being "no better at this" game of taking in the road-kill. You hear that tune of "a trumpet's brassed mourn" ("Jazz Funeral"). It leaves you changed.

The threat potential always working the underside of New Orleans is one part of the poetry. The other is a heady combination of the mystery and the romance of the place, and, here again, Auchter uses pitch-perfect details to evoke a city of many faces: ". . . the ruin // of the cracked porch, the swampy stink of summer / in my hair, the coffee and fried dough, and yes, even / the palmetto bugs that hid just under the window." ("Why New Orleans"); the cemetery with its "blue vase filled // with artificial tulips, rosary beads, a note folded / and folded." ("Holt Cemetery"); that flirtation with love spells and Vodou, when "Every night, women come with baskets / of fruit, rosaries, clippings of their own dark // braids. Leave candy, . . . ("The Wishing Tomb"); and, not least, the determined spirit with which the city's inhabitants wake every morning ". . . to return to the light in the cypress, the mangrove, oxgrass. The stirring / of seabirds rising, rising." ("Late Pastoral").

There are poems in The Wishing Tomb that speak to the city's too-frequent suffering — "American Plague", "The Good Friday Flood, 1927", "Billion-Dollar Betsy", "Fragments of an Aftermath" — or that revive feelings of outrage — "A Brief History With Documents", "Highway Pastoral". And there are poems that are quite moving: "Mourning Brooch and Earrings, c. 1866", "Decorating the Tombs: All Saints' Day", "The Education of Ruby Bridges, 1960", "Creole Tomatoes", "Why New Orleans". Auchter can put a reader who came of age during the periods addressed in the poems right back in that particular time and place.

And then, there, too, are the poems about that ever-present water that structures and defines New Orleans, is both its life- and death force:

 . . . Everywhere // it is dark: loose leaves, // forest. The water / arrives exhausted, climbs // the lowlands and marshweed. We will want // to close its wide mouth, bring boats. . . // . . . Let the water / rise and wash / through the streets. Let the wind fill each breath, each dry throat." ("Letter to Comte de Pontchartrain").

This is a collection to read and consider, savor, and then read again.

A selection including some of the poems I mention above is here. The Wishing Tomb was awarded the 2012 Perugia Press Prize for a First or Second Book of Poetry by a Woman.

Amanda Auchter is founding editor of Pebble Lake Review. Her first full-length collection The Glass Crib (Zone 3 Press, 2011) was awarded the 2010 Zone 3 Press First Book Award. Her chapbook, published by Finishing Line Press in 2006, is available through resellers. Auchter is the recipient of a number of poetry prizes, including a Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry (Bellevue Literary Review) and a James Wright Poetry Award (Mid-American Review). She holds a master's in fine arts from Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches creative writing and literature at Lone Star College, Houston, Texas.

Auchter on FaceBook and Twitter

Auchter's Blog

No comments: