by Wendy Galgan
BIRDS OF SAN PANCHO AND OTHER POEMS OF PLACE
BY LUCILLE LANG DAY
BLUE LIGHT PRESS, 2020
BY ERIN ELIZABETH SMITH
STEPHEN F. AUSTIN UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2020
BIRDS OF SAN PANCHO AND OTHER POEMS OF PLACE
Lucille Lang Day is a poet I turn to for pleasure, for comfort, for reassurance that beauty and – dare I say – hope exist even in the midst of loss and deep sorrow. Her newest collection, Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place, arrived in my mailbox this past August at a time when, more than ever, I needed to spend time with Day’s poetry.
In the first section of the collection, “Foreigner,” Day takes us through Mexico, the Galápagos Islands, Costa Rica, Greece, France, Belgium, Spain, Amsterdam, and Italy. The title of the very first poem in this section, “It Matters,” announces Day’s poetics clearly. Her poems are poems of observation that detail the importance of small, everyday things – the markings and songs of birds, the color of a house, church bells, the “tart and salty” taste of olives (“Dinner in Barcelona”) – and then juxtapose and connect these things with what is most necessary to human existence: love, charity, grace, yes, but also the arts, care for the environment, and the creation of a world in which a young boy can grow up and “never have to hold a gun” (“It Matters”).
There is exquisite beauty in Day’s poems, but there are also moments of danger (“Almost Mugged in Lucca”), climate change (“Global Warming in the Galápagos”), and physical difficulties (“Falling in Florence”). For me, the most touching juxtaposition is between the collection’s title poem and the one immediately following it, “Hologram.”
In “Birds of San Pancho,” the speaker details the many and varied birds she encounters in Nayarit, Mexico. From the great kiskadee’s “exuberant song” through “the lemony / underside” of a yellow-winged cacique’s tail to the dozens of birds gathered at a lagoon at sunset, “It seems the birds are out / to cheer me,” says the speaker, even though she knows they are just seeking “food / and mates.” The poem ends with the speaker wishing she could perch at the top of the coconut trees the way the egrets have, “safe, having eaten my fill — with / folded wings, watching over creation.”
The reader then moves to “Hologram,” the first poem in the work that does not indicate its location at the start. Rather than looking outward and describing what the speaker sees, this poem is looking inward: “In my dream, my daughter shimmered / on stage as a hologram,” and it is only halfway through the second stanza that the poem reveals that the daughter has died of cancer (Day’s daughter Liana died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2013). This “mischievous toddler” who grew up to be a therapist is now lost to her mother except in dreams. Mother and daughter “snubbed death” during chemotherapy, radiation, and tests, and even as her child’s life was ending the speaker
. . .held
her hand and told her over and over
Hang onto hope, Liana. You can still
get better, as though my love could
scratch a diamond or hold back the night.
Thus, the poem that began with a daughter as beautiful and alive as the birds of San Pancho ends with a mother “watching over [her] creation,” yet unable to keep her safe.
In the second section of the collection, “Between the Two Shining Seas,” Day turns her poet’s eye to the United States. The first poem in this section, “Names of the States,” turns the indigenous words that became state names into a metaphor for how so many peoples’ lands were taken away, stolen:
And yes, every part of this land is Indian country, from forest
to desert, mountain to prairie, Manhattan to Yosemite,
Tallahassee to Seattle – all the fields, rivers, hills and canyons
between the two shining seas
As in the collection’s first section, the poems here are about the way human beings are destroying the planet (“What Flows Into the Gulf of Mexico”), the beauty to be found in nature wild (“On Nantucket”) and tamed (“At the Berkeley Rose Garden”), and of course, birds (“Watching the Grebes”).
There are also more personal poems (although I hesitate to conflate speaker with poet, there are times when doing so is inevitable). There is the joyousness of a grandson who spouts similes that some may see as childish but that, in actuality, contain solid, beautiful truths. “I love you more than an infinity of houses,” the boy says, which the speaker realizes uses “the most expensive / and important thing anyone owns” to express the child’s feelings for her (“Similes by Devlin, Age Four”). There is grief at the illness and eventual death of a friend (“Old Man” and “It Happens”), and poems such as “Come Back” which return to the death of the poet’s elder child. While in “Hologram” the daughter came back in a dream, in “Come Back” the poem acts as an attempted incantation, a hope of summoning that must, in the end, fail:
I want you to throw a tantrum
in a store when I refuse
to buy you candy
and while I’m bathing
I want you to pour
all my lotions and perfumes
into the center of my bed
After listing the many things she wants, the speaker makes a final wish, an impossible wish:
I’m sitting in the kitchen
the phone is on
the line isn’t busy
you can call me collect
but this time
you have to live
Unlike the imagined sitting at the end of “Birds of San Pancho,” here the speaker sits in her own kitchen, waiting for a call that will never come.
The collection ends with “Going,” a meditation on learning to “see all destinations as steppingstones” and on discovering that it is in the going, not the getting there, that meaning and experience lie. The poem, and the collection, end with this hard-earned ability to see
the journey itself as a stack of diamonds
all journeys as one journey
with wind or wheels propelling me forward
through desert and forest as I create the only path
Lucille Lang Day takes the reader on a journey through the poems in Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place. At this moment, in these difficult days especially, this is a journey worth taking.
* * *
To be a poet, to be a good poet, is to be courageous. All good poets reveal themselves within their work, and with that revealing open themselves up to the reader. Even when a poets work is not “about” them in the literal sense, even though (as Anne Sexton said) “All poets lie,” each poem contains a truth about the poet who wrote it.
Erin Elizabeth Smith is a wonderful poet, courageous in her work and in the “truths” and “lies” she uses as the foundation for her poems. Her voice, even when vulnerable, is strong and original, and there is tremendous pleasure to be found in even the darkest of her poems because they ring out so clearly from the page. Her imagery is concrete and striking, providing steadfast support for the truth she tells in her poems.
In her latest collection, Down, Smith uses the literary conceit of Alice in Wonderland as the foundation for searing, brutally honest, and beautifully crafted (in the best meaning of the word) poems.
The first section, “Begin at the Beginning,” opens with the poem “Three Months in Tennessee.” This is a hopeful poem, with the speaker still a relative newlywed who has relocated with her husband to Knoxville. The imagery is of flowers and birds, and of the joys of a new home with “the butter light / of our living room, high / ceilings of textured white / making shadows of everything.” The poems that follow look back on earlier relationships, on how the speaker cut her ring finger “on a bottle / in a drunken parking lot” (“The Secret Bodies”), on how the past informs the present but, if we are lucky, does not ruin it (“Mapmaking”).
Five poems in, with “Remembering the Name or The Ten-Month Marriage,” the past comes back to the speaker, who remembers how she “drank everything in the house” when her husband told her he was leaving her and how she looked back “in the strange alphabet of hindsight.” This is a poem of loss and anger, and provides a bridge to the next poem, “The Carroll Illustrations,” the first one to address Alice in Wonderland directly. Here, “Alice isn’t / so proper or so blonde,” setting up the collection’s trope of a not-so-innocent Alice, “plain-clothed” and “stone-eyed,” who is often a stand-in for, or doppelgänger of, a poem’s speaker.
The title poem, “Down,” follows “The Carroll Illustration,” and in this work the poem’s speaker connects herself to Alice. This is the Alice of experience, though, not of innocence;
I have grown. I have eaten
and drank until I’m unsure who I am
without the slim-necked glass, lanced
olive and gin. I am no longer blue-dressed,
pinafored, a girl wrapped like a gift.
This connection changes with the next poem, “Behind the Fireplace.” Here, the speaker directly addresses Alice, first continuing the connection win the previous poem (“I have gone into the mirror, Alice”), then complicating it by detailing how her life has been different from Alice’s:
. . .But you,
you have no father that cracks the belt
to your thigh or mother whose stomach holds
49 pills. Your sisters aren’t found frothing
on the front yard at fourteen or posed, red-eyed
for the flash of police camera. . . .
This connection between the speaker and Alice, similar yet different, will carry through the rest of the collection, reappearing in different guises throughout all four sections of the book.
The book’s second section, “A Fabulous Beast,” continues that connection through poems about Alice, poems spoken by Alice, and poems where the speaker is not Alice but is like her. It begins with the book’s longest poem, “If Alice Lived Here,” where Alice moves through different states looking for a place to belong, a place to call home. Yet, “Maybe home is a made-up place — / like love, like Wonderland.” Maybe “she could / raise sheep in Montana / when this doesn’t work out,” and it’s the “when” that provides the poem’s heartbreak.
That heartbreak is found in many of Smith’s poems. It is at the end of “The Men Who Loved Alice,” when the speaker has had her hair cut short and, “in the steely daguerreotype,” is now “no more girl than princess / turned over and over / in the hands of men,” and it is in the weariness in that turning, and those hands, that the heartbreak resides.
With “Alice Gives Advice to Dorothy,” we find a clear-eyed Alice drawing on her own loss of innocence to tell her literary counterpart from The Wizard of Oz just how the world works for girls and women. Returning to Kansas would mean Dorothy is going back to a place where “you are a child / to be tamed, turned to aprons, dustbins, / white pies cooling on windowsill.” Returning home, Dorothy will be domesticated, ordinary, shackled to house and – eventually – husband instead of staying where “you are given a crown, jeweled walkway, / a horse that flickers deliciously / from one hued gemstone to the next.” At the poem’s end, Alice cuts to the heart of the matter, revealing that they are both nothing but tools used to keep girl-children safely in their place, calling Dorothy
so foolish to believe home
is something you’d want to click your heels for,
a place where we aren’t just stories
told to keep girls tight in their own beds.
The collection’s third section, “The Moon, and Memory, and Muchness,” expands upon the Alice trope with poems such as “Alice in Louisiana,” “Alice to James Franco,” and “Alice Recounts the Unfortunate Accident with Bonne and the Rabbit,” and includes two non-Alice poems, “Dinah” and “On Waking from the Dream and Finding Nothing.” In “On Waking. . .,” another of the longer poems in the collection, the imagery is of loss and of “the newly lonesome // dark,” a place where the speaker says “I do not want // him back, but the words are returning,” and it is – of course – in “the words” that the poem itself exists. The speaker looks at maple trees that “eye their new wardrobe” and find that “it’s impossible / not to see loss in every flippant leaf.” Yet the poem ends with a lovely metaphor which imparts a bit of hope, describing how “There are days” in Knoxville
. . . Where the moon
in her round blue skirts, lifts
up the hem to make night
dark again, and for once, I see
no symbol in this. Just the blatant stars,
all their tender fire.
“Everything’s Got a Moral (If Only You Can Find It)” is the finial section of the book. Here we find that “Alice Ponders Knoxville” in April, and that memories of past lovers return yet again (“The High School Production” and “Alice Dreams the Storm”). The book’s final poem, “February in Knoxville,” returns us to the city in which the collection started, and to the hope contained in that first poem. In Knoxville now, the lawn is “finally” brown and “there’s no more snow,” but it’s still winter. “Sometimes we empty and are never filled,” but
. . . Sometimes the rosemary
lasts through winter and mint comes
back like a hero on her masted ship.
And sometimes the sweetness
of cities and seasons is enough
to clean the body of its harm,
and we must take what lives to the lips,
to see if maybe,
maybe it can heal us again.
Throughout Down, Erin Elizabeth Smith’s courage never falters, her voice never fades. She does not shy away from the distressing or the ugly, but also finds beauty and at least moments of peace as well. Most of all, Smith tells the truth.