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Fall 1994, Volume 11.3

Book Reviews

 

Pilgrims to the Wild, Reviewed by William T. Hamilton
Tipping Point, Reviewed by Donna R. Cheney
Sáanii Dahataa/The Women Are Singing: Poems and Stories, Reviewed by Gary Short
Heart Earth, Reviewed by Joel Passey
Skin of a Fish, Bones of a Bird, Reviewed by Katharine Coles

Frontier Gothic: Terror and Wonder at the Frontier in American Literature, Reviewed by Mikel Vause

 

 

Pilgrims to the Wild by John P. O'Grady, Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1993, 169 pp., $16.95 (paper).

Reviewed by William T. Hamilton, Department of English, Metropolitan State College of Denver

According to Huck Finn, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is about "a man that left his family it didn't say why." John P. O'Grady is not nearly so naive a reader as Huck, but he has a similar curiosity about the motives of the five American "pilgrims" he treats in this absorbing study. He also provides considerable insight into the problem of "saying" anything about a genuine pilgrimage. Such a journey, by O'Grady's definition, takes the traveller well beyond the conventions and the everyday language of the "family" he leaves behind and to whom, if his pilgrimage is to be completely successful, he must ultimately return to testify about the meaning of his experience.

Pilgrims to the Wild is a difficult book to classify. The figures O'Grady writes about—Everett Ruess, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Clarence King, and Mary Austin—have in common only that each had imaginative encounters with the American wilderness. It cannot even really be said that they were all writers, and in any case O'Grady's approach to their work is not literary criticism. After providing his own list of things his book is not, O'Grady maintains that "Pilgrims to the Wild is a contribution to the study of American spiritual autobiography" (xii).

O'Grady announces in his preface that his "fundamental assumption… is that 'the wild' is erotic space, and the pilgrimages I am concerned with are journeys through that space" (ix). A good bit of the book is devoted to making clear what he means by "erotic," with considerable reference to oriental religion, modern psychoanalytic criticism, and cultural anthropology. Certain wild phenomena—mountains, deserts, the rare bream in Walden Pond—are objects of complex desire for these pilgrims, and O'Grady perceives the relationship between pilgrim and these beloved objects as an erotic one. At key points in his argument, he insists there is nothing metaphorical about this situation; with all but one of his pilgrims, he probes the connection between their reactions to the Wild and their relationships with actual or potential human lovers.

O'Grady's approach is most successful with two figures who represent polar opposites in terms of their spiritual autobiographies: Everett Ruess, who wrote almost nothing, and Henry David Thoreau, by far the most prolific and best known of O'Grady's pilgrims. At the age of twenty, Everett Ruess disappeared in 1934 in the Utah back country, leaving behind a handful of letters and an indelible impression on more articulate types like Hamlin Garland and Edward Weston, whose reflections on his pilgrimage helped keep his experience alive as a useful case in point. No one knows exactly how Ruess died, but it is quite clear to O'Grady that it was not a simple suicide. Instead, it was the ultimate spiritual quest, deep into the desert, beyond the boundaries of conventional experience and the limits of language. This stunning bit of "performance art," as O'Grady calls it, was ultimately a betrayal of the community that still remembers it, however, because unless the pilgrim comes home to witness, the pilgrimage remains tragically incomplete. Thoreau, on the other hand, although he was keenly aware of the inadequacy of language to express the deepest secrets of the nature of things, including love, never ceased trying. O'Grady focuses on the late essay "Walking," but wisely draws on Walden, other essays, and the Journals as well to demonstrate that the bulk of Thoreau's work constitutes precisely the kind of passionate, erotic "spiritual autobiography" he has in mind. Many readers will find this chapter the most provocative and convincing part of the book. Thoreau, standing on the edge between self and other, is the perfect lover/pilgrim, trying to bridge the chasm with language and succeeding where the others fail.

O'Grady never expects Thoreau to incorporate into the life revealed in his work the erotic interests he may have had as a man—or that he explain how his awed reaction to Mount Katahdin, say, might reflect his feelings (whatever they may have been) for the young Mrs. Emerson some years earlier. Most readers of Thoreau will appreciate this reticence, but O'Grady considers it a failure that Clarence King and John Muir do not address their troubled love lives in books that were, after all, even less intentionally confessional than Walden. Surely the lesson of the master "pilgrim to the wild" (a title which seems for a variety of reasons to fit Thoreau almost perfectly) is not that one needs to be more candid about one's sexuality to write a great work of spirituality.

O'Grady's chapter on Mary Austin is a somewhat more complex matter; he writes in such an interesting way about the author of The Land of Little Rain that he should win her new readers. Although he seems to feel that even she has not quite succeeded in integrating the various elements of eros into her work, as a woman and mother her pilgrimage was qualitatively different from the men's, but she comes closest, in Huck's terms, to "saying why" of all these pilgrims.

This is a challenging book, not the first or last word on "American spiritual autobiography," but a significant contribution to understanding that enigmatic genre.

 

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Tipping Point by Fred Marchant. Washington, D.C.: The Word Works, 1993, 80 pp., $10.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Donna R. Cheney, Department of English, Weber State University

Like most poetry books today by individual artists, Marchant's collection, his first, is slim. It contains, in fact, only thirty-four poems. The work comes with impressive credentials, however. Tipping Point is the winner of the 1993 Word Works Washington Prize. Word Works is a nonprofit literary organization which is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among other prestigious groups. Marchant's work was "selected from 344 manuscripts that were submitted by American poets."

Yet having given such credit only means that a work must perform particularly well to be considered successful. Marchant's work fulfills critical expectations with distinction. He is a fine poet, given especially to graphic metaphors which move both outward and inward from the poet's personal experience to our own.

Without question, he writes for a literate audience; his references range from the Minotaur to Hawthorne's young Robin Molineux, from the Iliad to Billy Budd. His allusions are explained sufficiently within the poems so that unfamiliar references do not become intrusive, but familiarity with such works brings satisfying richness.

A case in point is "Wartime," his longest poem on war, which has eight divisions, each in a different poetic style and based on a different metaphor. Seeking for some overall meaning, I was pulled to the lines from Whitman's The Sleepers which are set above the beginning of Marchant's work:

The soul is always beautiful,
The universe is in order, everything in its place.

What "Wartime" seems to show is tied closely to Whitman's own first line, "I wander all night in my vision…." A further help to understanding may come from the fact given in the background information on Marchant that he is "one of the first [Marine Corps] officers ever to be discharged honorably as a conscientious objector." Marchant's vision is that war is, as one general says, a fog; no one sees the whole picture of what is going on. Each has a different experience, fragmented, unclear. Whitman suggested an ironic vision; Marchant's work makes the disorder real and personal.

The work primarily contains poems on two subjects: war and family relationships. The title work is a war story in which the narrator is a Marine who is snorkeling-in to a beach under the cover of B52's. But like the soldier, the planes are predatory. War smell is embedded in everything around, "not so much of deathbut rather the long / living with it, sleeping in it, / not ever washing your body free of it." Before the mission "The commanding general said, 'Every man has a tipping point,/ a place where his principles give way.'" To the soldier's protests of being involved as an accomplice, the narrator tells us we all have our "complicities in tow."

 

As effective as the war poems are, more touching to me as a reader (whose experience with war comes through others), is the primary topic of the collection: relationships with family. Marchant shares onomatopoetic images of an abusive father and a shadowy, ineffective mother. Perhaps the most compelling of these poems is "The Foot of the Mountain," in which the words "slap" and "punch" are felt by the reader. This early poem is matched by "Starlight Mints," a picture of the poet's father as a very ill old man, sucking too noisily on an oversweet candy. The metaphor is enlarged in the next poem, a waking dream in which son and now-dead father "bartered versions of the past."

The opening piece of the book, set in italics, includes the instructions, "Hold onto whatever offers itself." The speaker, who sounds remarkably like Tennyson, counsels, "But we are part of who you are, / and we have been waiting a long time." Not until the last poem does this advice become clear, for only after reading through the collection, which represents a life sequence, does the work become a complete vision. The last poem is a continuation of the first poem. The shared metaphor is of coming down a treacherous mountain into a safe clearing at the bottom where loved ones wait. We are told it is a mountain of forgiveness "and that the work will be to traverse the

empty spaces with meaning." Marchant's work does just that. Principles do not seem to give way; in working through difficulties, the vision becomes hopeful. The collection concludes:

…If those you love
glimpse you, it will be in the form
of a red-tail fox crossing at dusk
into the wood stand, and because they
have loved you, they will watch
as long as you let them. They will not
harm you, so swears the wind,
not this close to heaven.

 

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Sáanii Dahataa/The Women Are Singing: Poems and Stories by Luci Tapahonso. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1993, 96 pp., $19.95 (cloth); $9.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Gary Short, Stegner Fellow, Stanford University

As she opens this moving book, Luci Tapahonso writes of the importance of story (to "talk beautifully") in her Navajo culture. In a deeply felt cycle of poems and stories, she shares memories of the places and people near Shiprock, New Mexico. Through descriptions of celebrations, journeys, funerals, reunions, and other life events, Luci Tapahonso reveals the ways of her people, as well as her own sense of connectedness to the world.

The stories and poems of this book come from a place of long horizons and a huge sky. When the night sky is full of stars, the time is right for these night songs, always instructive, but not always comforting. She recalls the near decimation of the Navajo tribe and sees in the current generation several brothers and family members who die young. There are apparitions; the ghost of a woman who died in your motel room might show up by your bed in the middle of the night. The dead are never far from us. In her poem, "It is a Simple Story," Tapahonso writes:

It is in this calmness, in the pale sky above,
and in the wind grazing at our clothes and hair
that I feel the quiet loneliness of the dead in this vast place,
and I know that we are with them,
                                together and apart.

In most of the stories and poems, Tapahonso writes in a literal manner. Events, both personal and historical, are described in non-metaphorical language. This straight-ahead narrative technique, with an eye for detail, is effective for much of the book, but in some of the poems, such as "The Weekend is Over" and "Hills Brothers Coffee," the language is not charged enough and does not serve to elevate the events into poetry.

The strengths of the book are its compassion and sense of unity, for the overwhelming and compelling tone is one of love—love for place, for tradition, for language, for family and neighbors, and even for animals. The family pets in "Little Pet Stories" are used to commemorate the old man Sandoval who lived down the road. Most readers will be won over by Luci Tapahonso's tenderness for family. In detailing her relationship to her parents, Tapahonso forges a connection with her own children and husband, an interconnectedness that can stretch across time and distance. For example, in the story that closes the book, "Who I Am," a young Navajo woman visits Paris and prays from the top of the Eiffel Tower. As she lets corn pollen brought from America float down from the tower to the plaza below, she realizes, "who I am is my mother, her mother, and my great-grandmother." Both Navajo and English are used in this book which blends memoir and fiction in the storytelling style common to many Native traditions. This book is historical and instructional. The tale "Uncle's Journey," speaks of the behavior of the children during an uncle's illness and in the four days after his death in which the uncle "travels" to the next world: "They ate everything that was served so that Uncle would have strength for his journey." At the same time, they chopped wood and kept the coal boxes full.

In the poem, "A Whispered Chant of Loneliness," Tapahonso says, "My days: an undercurrent of fear,/an outpouring of love/a whispered chant of loneliness." These lines underscore a major motif in this book although, by the conclusion of The Women Are Singing, she has worked and succeeded at transcending loneliness by establishing community. Ultimately this cycle is about wholeness, not separation, a sense that boundaries between generations and between the dead and the living are disappearing. There is a continuance. Luci Tapahonso lovingly uses memory and story to put back the world with a faith in what is gone, but not lost.

 

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Heart Earth by Ivan Doig. New York: Macmillan, 1993, 160 pp., $19.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Joel Passey, Dept. of Communication, Weber State University

In a recent public lecture in Utah entitled "The West as Heart Earth," American writer Ivan Doig spoke of the essential life force that animates his latest memoir, Heart Earth:

I speak from a sense of place that has persevered in my family since my grandparents homesteaded in Montana…. Not just the land, but the personal landscape we create—the "cultural geography," the heart earth—makes this our deepest place.

Doig seeks to know the ways we signature our own identity to the West—how in the act of seeing and naming the features of our places into familiarity, we see and name ourselves. The wellspring of this knowing runs deep for Doig. His first expression of it came with the publication in 1978 of This House of Sky, a portrait of his early life in Montana with his father Charlie Doig and maternal grandmother Bessie Ringer. The early death of his mother Berneta Ringer Doig to asthma on the writer's sixth birthday left a haunting void in the gallery of faces he so clearly sketches in This House of Sky, the book that showcased Doig's exuberant and lyrical prose.

Now in Heart Earth, winner of the 1992 Evans Award for biography, Doig writes with the same force and clarity to raise from the pages a poignant narrative of the last six months of his mother's life. It is February 1945; World War II is nearing its final phase. The Doig family has moved to the desert dry of Phoenix, Arizona, to ease Berneta's asthma. Doig's father Charlie is foreman at an Alcoa aluminum plant. Incidental to Doig's search for his mother's voice are the letters she wrote to her brother Wally who was stationed on the destroyer USS Ault. Childhood recollections of his mother's voice, her felt presence, and these leftover letters of her life nourish Heart Earth. From these, Doig creates a flesh-and-blood life to match the photographs he holds of his mother and, so, is able to memorialize her. Doig teases the creative muses to the limit to speak what could not otherwise be said, to describe in absentia events that ring as true as though directly observed.

Doig works the language meticulously. He disciplines the prose in a way that reflects his own stubborn hold to sustain life in the harsh Montana landscapean earth subsistence both exhilarating and perilous. Doig's hard-won efforts pay handsomely for the reader of Heart Earth. Here, Doig describes the gun salute at the funeral in Montana in 1986 of his uncle Wally Ringer:

Four fingers of flame thrust toward the snowfields of Mount Baldy and extinguish into echo. Stiffly working their rifle bolts to reload, the Veterans of Foreign Wars honor guard aims and lets fire again, the combined muzzleflash flexing bright another instant. Then a last volley, and the honor guard dissolves into World War Two oldsters clutching at their campaign caps in the cemetery wind (4).

With regard to the book's temporal sequencing, Doig says it best when, in reference to his mother's letter, he writes, "Their record of ricochet was stunning: from American deserts and mountaintops to a ship… in the South Pacific to a family trunk closed away… to a last will and testament… to a son's eyes" (9). The book's five chapters each open with a letter postmarked date, a salutation to Wally, followed by lines from Berneta's letters. These temporal markers, along with excerpted portions of her letters throughout, unify and etch textures of her personality into Doig's searching memory. At strategic points in this shifting chronology, Doig flushes the reader forward into narrow canyons of his already lived future, such as the scene of Wally's funeral and, later, the 1991 return trip Doig makes to Phoenix and Wickenburg, Arizona.

From these shuttered snapshots of time and place, Doig washes, to the surface, clear still lifes from the early Doig and Ringer families. The frames of the story merge artfully into a memoir rich with splashes of humor and lyrical serenity. The "pretend" war games of the five-year-old Ivan are playfully and authentically drawn. A charming domestic sketch spotlights Berneta and her friend Winona sewing formal dance dresses at the rented house in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, after the family's late-March return from Arizona. Winona's romantic interest in Wally is less important to the content of the memoir than she is as a source in Doig's search for his mother's identity. Doig's poignant 1990 visit to Winona, then in her seventies, visions the stark and unforgiving landscape that winnows away its most hardy inhabitants.

Finally, the description of Berneta's solo ride into the Hatfield Mountains to herd sheep late in the final June of her life reaches a triumphant moment when she finds in her own vulnerable life a lasting oneness with the land she loved most. The reader senses that Doig himself has found in this quest for his mother a hitherto inaccessible steam of inspiration to sustain his journeyings after yet undiscovered heartbeats of his past. Within the bold, verbal architecture of Doig's style, the reader finds repose with a temperament that is at once familiar.

Readers familiar with Doig's earlier works will find much to praise in Heart Earth. First-time readers will be entertained by his exuberant use of language.

 

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Skin of a Fish, Bones of a Bird by Helen Frost. Bristol, RI: Ampersand Press, 1993, 62 pp., $10.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Katharine Coles, Department of English, Westminster College of Salt Lake City.

All too seldom these days do I pick up a book of poems—much less a first book—and set it down two hours later experiencing, predominantly, an overwhelming sense of joy. This is all the more true in a book whose poems encounter and face up to hardship and death over and over, a book which in fact begins with the removal of a fourteen year-old's breast and ends with an elegy. That the opening poem is called "Crown of Joy" and the final elegy turns out to be a joyful celebration of life is typical of this poet's skill and of her emotional range and complexity.

Naturally enough, the opening sonnet crown in Helen Frost's Skin of a Fish, Bones of a Bird begins with a kind of spiritual birth, which is, however, also a death, "an absence/ever after present," in the childhood mastectomy of the speaker's aunt and namesake, Helen Frost, in 1910. After portraying, with a typically moving tact, this maiming surgery, the poem follows the aunt as she is called and embarks as a missionary to Alaska, where she finds tremendous hardship, the joys of community, and, finally, the romantic love she'd given up on after her mastectomy, "a gift she'd not had time to dream of." The book's final celebratory elegy commemorates the same aunt's death in 1986. But though the figure of the aunt haunts this volume, the book doesn't adhere to the linearity and singularity of concern implied by its order. Between the opening sonnet and the final elegy, in poems about her own life in the heart of Alaska, about encounters with the natural world, and about friends and family, Helen Frost braids past and present, and in doing so addresses the question of what makes us human, transforming everything her words touch—from the smallest object to the vastest landscape—into an emblem of our complex nature. Though there are many "domestic" poems here, none of them is merely domestic; though Frost is a nature poet, her poems do not provide the kind of mere epiphany so common in contemporary nature poetry, the sort of poetic moment that allows the reader (and perhaps the poet) to feel smugly "connected" to nature without taking responsibility for it or confronting its real brutalities. The natural world of these poems is the natural world as the thinking human who loves and relies upon nature lives deeply within it, even with the weapons and barbed wire, the airplanes and "snow machines" that make such life possible; the poems' domestic world is the domestic world as fever, miscarriage, a near-miss with quicksand, and death bring nature's wilderness into it. It is partly their honest engagement with her subject, partly their delicate sense of the music of language, and partly their combination of plain-spokenness and formality, that give Frost's poems strength and authenticity of voice. In the "Crown of Joy" and other longer poems, Frost shows that she can sustain length while at the same time employing complex formal strategies to break her subjects open. Her shorter lyrics, also deceptively plain in language, are often saved from flatness by formality—there are sestinas and a villanelle, as well as the long sonnet sequence, and the forms used are always so right for enacting the emotional urgencies of the poems that they become nearly invisible while adding their necessary tension. The villanelle "Mud, Sticks, Food" uses repetition to turn over, as it were, the death of a pregnant beaver; and the sestina "Wandering Around, Getting Nowhere" uses its form as a kind of inexorable equation for loss.

Frost's almost obsessive use of cyclic forms feels right throughout because this book in essence presents us with a poetry of cycles, of life and death, as it also presents by necessity a poetry of witness. Finally, in every way, this book gives us its great gift: a poetry of connectedness—of the natural world as it connects with the human world in all its joys and dangers; of the seasons linking the living and the dead, the present and the past. The speaker shows us how to achieve such links, connecting herself through place, genes, and loving community with the missionary aunt who lived in Alaska before her:

I go back, through the image,
through my father's sister
who lived in this place and was loved,
through the people who loved her, the parents

who loved them… the old village glows and dies.

Helen Frost's is a poetry of high art fused with content. But mostly, because it is infused with love, it is also a poetry of joy, of how "Life refuses/to be diminished by our limitations," of how there is in the poet's world "So much/thought and human goodness, so much love." And here, in this book, so much art and human wisdom. So much to be thankful for.

 

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Frontier Gothic: Terror and Wonder at the Frontier in American Literature edited by David Mogen, Scott P. Sanders, and Joanne B. Karpinski. Canbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993, 206 pp., $33.50 (cloth).

Reviewed by Mikel Vause, Department of English, Weber State University

...the very concept of American gothic is paradoxical, since so much of American culture denies the possibility of the gothic experience. (13)

This introductory idea from Frontier Gothic holds the essence of the text. In American literature, with the exception of the works of some of our Southern writers, the gothic formula (carried over from British antecedents), with its characteristics of medieval magic, mystery, and horror (or as Addison defined it, "all the extravagances of an irregular fancy") simply doesn't work. And it doesn't work because there is very little about the American experience that allows for the traditional concepts of gothic. In England and on the European continent, the elements of the gothic abound in the fine arts (painting and music), in literature (myths and legends), and in architecture (castles and cathedrals). Medieval castles and cathedrals especially provide what we have come to expect as the gothic trappings: locked upper chambers, disappearing stairways, cold and dark passageways, and dungeons that hide living victims and allow for constant visits of ghosts seeking rest or revenge. But American culture lacks these traditional trappings. For one thing, America has expanded and developed far too fast to allow for historical depth in the arts, such as music and visual arts, and it has been far too willing to disregard artistic development in favor of technology. Also with the rapid Western movement, the rush for new land has left us few mysterious castles or estates. So America has had to create its own gothic at the edge of civilization:

Frontier gothic, then, is a part of the American tradition that extends from the present back to the earliest reactions of the European immigrants to the New World. The gothic wilderness is a profoundly American symbol of an ambiguous relationship to the land, of an alienation that was first articulated when, in the words of Peter N. Carroll, the Puritans perceived beneath the florid plenty of the New World…the Devil…lurking in the wilderness. (20)

Beginning with this Puritan concept, the wilderness becomes a key element in frontier gothic because of the strange vastness of the open spaces and the darkness of the dense forests, the aggression of both animal and element, not to mention the barbarians—Indians and trappers—living in intentional isolation away from the rest of social America. The darkness and stale atmosphere found in ancient European architecture are, in American frontier gothic, found in the unexplored openness and the seeming lack of control by humans over the natural environment.

In Frontier Gothic, fourteen essays do an excellent job of defining and expanding upon this new concept of gothic. The introduction to the text will be of great value to teachers dealing with what appears to be the paradoxical gothic elements of American literature:

A natural (or supernatural) medium in which to dramatize fundamental conflicts about the nature of reality, American supernatural fiction expresses the spirit of a nation both proud of its pragmatic realism and hungry for romance, vigorously pursuing a manifest destiny in the common light of day, yet troubled and enraptured by twilight apparitions. (14)

The introduction then examines the ideas of many of the most eminent critics and writers and is, as all introductions should be, a touchstone for the rest of the text.

The essays in this collection range from examinations of gothic naturalism, such as David S. Gross' essay dealing with the Norwegian novelist O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth, to essays focusing on Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Flannery O'Connor, Sam Shepard, and Charles Brockden Brown. The editors also include current modes of criticism dealing with class, gender, and deconstruction.

Frontier Gothic is an excellent collection of well-written essays that serve to define and illustrate the place of the gothic in American writing. The book is a valuable resource for teachers and scholars, especially those who are interested in researching the gothic thread in the historical, as well as the most contemporary, works of American literature.

 

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