Reviewed January 1, 2012 by Sara Renee Marshall.
Some ancient Irish poets and occult believed that the moment of invention—the poem itself—was birthed by some lengthy stewing process in a literal internal cauldron. Mystics and poets sought visions in pitch dark, at transitional hours (dusk or dawn), or even by meditating in auspicious doorways. Centuries later, threads of this idea still linger in Coleridge, though the hokey language of pagan ritual was abandoned for more luminous words like “imagination” and “fancy.” This is all to say that the poems in Christine Deavel’s debut collection Woodnote evidence the great power of incubation. Long-time owner of Seattle’s Open Books, Deavel’s learned and crafty attention to the line substantiate a lifelong dedication to reading. What’s more, it turns out Deavel’s kept up the practice of standing on thresholds, or perhaps reinvented it.
“Come help assemble the afterlife in the current life,” Deavel writes, a call Woodnote desires to answer in book form. In its five sections and coda, this book comprises a textual assemblage—in the compositional sense. The work draws from bird books, Roethke, inherited diaries and colloquialisms. Its speaker, dispatched home to rural Indiana, plants herself among remnants of the past in order to cobble together a fresh record of it. The voice: that of a flickering visitant who roams their hometown undetected. The objective: to unearth a heritage, and keep it ajar—to rummage through landscape, through found artifacts, and through text in an effort to define or reconstitute home.
In Woodnote’s first poems—masterfully enjambed—Deavel’s peek-a-boo lyric stages the recovery of something “Hidden / as a toy balloon in the sky is / and is not.” But the directive to seek won’t be answered with a conventional treasure hunt, since “What is hidden / like what is beautiful / is in the eye.” What is sought here is personal; the speaker seeks something imminently knowable, but that which—by the fog of memory or age or distance—has been obscured, overlooked, even forgotten. Deavel’s speaker explains, “I am a ghost / over an earlier river. / I am a ribbon / of smoke over / a ribbon of filmstrip.” She revisits not a reanimated motion picture of her history, but an inert still of it.
To uncover what is known but screened by memory’s blur, the speaker asks and asks. In fact, Woodnote overflows with questions—questions it seems the speaker asks her memories or her childhood self or the family with whom these poems are in conversation—in order to smoke the unseen out of hiding. What emerges is an enchanted Niedecker-esque woodland home delivered in an elegant lyric:
And in another mode—one that hesitantly invites the reader into more personal terrain—pieces of home are revealed by their unexpected referents, as in “what is winter / it is a father on a ladder / with glass.” A family slowly moves into view.
In a related tactic, Deavel’s poems often reassemble home and family through the landscape and objects so tethered to them: “the maple the walnut the oak,” “sauerkraut,” “caraway.” In what sounds like a whispered aside, she confides, “I cannot untangle myself / from the grassblades.” With this catalogue, Woodnote builds an imagistic diorama, a sensed, felt revision of rural Indiana. And when her devices collide—the inquiry, the natural world, the recovered family—with her astute musical sensibility, she constructs something like a song or a folk dictum you’re sure you’ve always known:
At its eeriest and yet most intimate, Woodnote channels a Dickinsonian lyrical rapport between the interior and exterior. Her relationship to the material world bears symptoms of internal associations. The writing turns more directly elegiac in this mode; more accurately, perhaps, the poems call up family ghosts, but with signature lyrical prudence:
These cautious lines sway a little, and in so doing, betray a fragile hope: to keep those who’ve passed on alive—to keep them talking.
In “Economy,” the final section, Deavel pairs her own ruminations with condensed excerpts from the daily diaries of Sarah, a distant relative. Sarah’s compact entries—“I paint tin roof,” “A gloomy day,” “Ralf infant son of Ed Hoffmans died age 12 hours”—report her family’s arduous rural life, the weather, and those countless events (marriage, birth, death) that brighten or darken one’s history. My first interpretive impulse says these diaries stand in for lineage—or worse, a sentimentalist’s claiming of it. But Deavel alleviates any threat of preciousness with a poignant, though self-conscious admission: “The Keeper, I am / not very good at it.” To her mind, a good archivist learns from the text they keep:
And so the lineage becomes less a recorded history, and more a conversation from which the speaker learns from the past; more importantly, she humbly mines Sarah’s entries for advice about how to conduct oneself in the present tense.
With a caution to both herself and the reader, the speaker admonishes “But rot is still possible” through her well-developed primary trope. Wood, like “the table” in the titular section, must not be mistaken for a simple fixture, nor is it a threaded reference to the heavy thicket outside the speaker’s family home. Here, the wood contains both its history as a tree and its interconnection with those who carve and craft it into use. Once used, the table becomes no different than a hand—an instrument of gesture—and that hand’s gesture carries a voice, and the possibility of communication. As in Shinto, wood is the dwelling place of an essence—for Deavel, the voices and movements of her mother and grandmother. Wood is never wooden, but curiously animated by and inseparable from those bodies with which it’s interacted. A warning against rot is an instruction against forgetting.
Our guide through Woodnote tells us—in a stunning “Coda”—that the poem is a “threshold” through which she speaks to others or is spoken to—“over which / wood calls out to wood.” For Deavel, the action of making the poem—standing on that threshold, open to what crosses—has serious stakes; her written inquiry is one way “to do more than breathe on this earth.”
Sara Renee Marshall lives and writes in Denver and Tucson.