The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti, BOA Editions
Mission Work, Aaron Baker, Houghton Mifflin
Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone, Janice N. Harrington, BOA Editions
A decade ago, I didn’t think twice about taking a day off and hunkering down with a novel. Diaper changes and pre-school pickups have temporarily obliterated such big bouts of reading, but lately poetry has been coming to my rescue. While novels demand large swaths of time, poetry asks for an opposite kind of attention that is perfectly suited to shorter sittings. This August at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference I had the pleasure to meet three poets whose prize-winning debut collections—two received the Poulin Prize from BOA Editions, one the Bakeless Prize from Bread Loaf—have saved my reading bacon and created worlds as rich as those I find in novels.
In The Boatloads, Dan Albergotti focuses on rendering moments when his characters become intensely aware of human vulnerability—physical, psychic, and spiritual. A boy watches a squirrel die; a fish gets carried off by a raptor. In Albergotti’s lines, which tend toward the vernacular, there is an implicit questioning of language itself as a tool of human comprehension and expression. “I do not believe a special providence / makes this world say anything,” (24) he writes. And people never seem to be able to get their words out right, as in Bad Language:
We fear to speak, and silence coats the night air.
So we are dumb, as quiet as the kitchen pans
hanging on their cabinet hooks. What words
do we even have? (25)
Such lines bespeak a muteness in the face of our desire to know, and since the desire to know gets so tied up with the Big Questions of Being, it’s no surprise that The Boatloads hovers close to religion. God makes several appearances, and both Jesus and Abraham make cameos; but it is the non-appearance of the divine as in Poem in Which God Does Not Appear that most occupies Albergotti. This non-appearance, often represented as of silence, aligns closely to human difficulties of language and communication.
The music of the spheres may be a great symphony
of unbroken silence: void, more void, a crescendo
of void. (41)
The last song of the one true god
is silent because the one true god
sings in a vacuum behind the thick,
black wall. (73)
One can never accuse Albergotti, with his weaving together of human and divine muteness, of shirking his poetic duty to dig toward the core of life.
The people of Aaron Baker’s Mission Work, meanwhile, find themselves in a far more primordial predicament. The collection is set in the remote Chimbu highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the author spent part of his childhood with missionary parents. In it, language takes a back seat as a tool for understanding life to the objects and movements of the physical world. In Chimbu Wedding, we are thrown into a world where the narrator, too young to make intellectual sense of his world, must rely on what he can sense and imagine:
When the pigs scream
and buckle with their skulls caved in
remember that not one thing in this world
will be spared. (3)
For Baker’s characters, understanding the world through the senses is a fundamental condition of life, just as muteness is for Albergotti’s. But this state is not limited to the young man we witness growing up in a place he does not know; the Kuman tribespeople we meet dwell in the same situation as they come to terms with the foreignness that has entered their community. One example of the interplay between cultures comes in Zero in the Branches, which describes a Japanese plane stuck in a tree.
Look: high in the canopy, forty years
since it fell almost to earth, the fuselage
hangs, its Rising Sun a circle of rust. ( 28 )
In a sense, the entire world of Mission Work becomes foreign, since anything its characters see is either alien in its essence or made alien by the presence of another culture. Baker’s use of variety of voices shifts attention away from autobiographical elements and toward his theme: the deep self-questioning that occurs on both sides of the fence whenever cultures interact. Mission Work includes poems in the voice of the Kuman natives, as well as observational poems with more abstracted narrators. Throughout the collection Baker shows people attempting to bride the gap between cultures, though he knows that some bridges cannot be crossed. In Second Genesis, for example, he writes:
We’ll be a single son of this country
when each has killed half of the other. ( 18 )
Janice N. Harrington’s Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone also dwells in place, and it creates its world with an authorial I even more effaced than Baker’s. The place is the American south in the mid-20th century, and before we meet its people we learn, from Harrington’s intense, cadence-driven lines, that we will be reading a poetry that calls out and sings to the world. The propulsive Alexandrine opening couplet of The Thief’s Tabernacle, which begins the collection, marks Harrington as the most rhythmically driven of these three poets:
If I steal the wan light from these penitent clouds
and take from their pewter cups dull coins full of rain (15)
So enmeshed are Harrington’s poems in the voice that we may not immediately realize we are reading a family narrative. We meet people and follow them around for a quarter of the collection before an I tentatively begins to assert itself. Only as we sink into her character do we recognize that we are reading a family history—as well as a social history—which began before her birth. We see “a school bus, / the one they used to carry colored kids / from biscuit to book and back again” (39). In The Warning Comes Down, we learn that:
France is where daddies go,
overseas, in silver-bellied planes, and maybe
they’ll come home again, tomorrow, tomorrow. (57)
The poems grow in scope and depth as the I comes of age, encountering the world and and embracing the forces that shaped her. Things become less innocent, less nurtured by the history of her family and more thrown into the history of her society as we meet “A Negro family going north, one of thousands leaving…” (70), then in Benham’s Disk:
My niece calls and exclaims, Guess what.
Yesterday I was white but now I’m black. (79)
Harrington’s intimate approach to social history—working first and foremost with the things and sounds of her characters’ world—gives Hollow a certain kinship with Mission Work. Toward the end she reminds us, in lines that might have found a home in Baker’s collection, that:
Vision is born of violence. All your memories
are mulattoes. (77)
Steven Wingate’s short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at http://www.stevenwingate.com