Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Reaching for Air: Poems of Trauma & Relislience in a Poor White Country Girl's Life, a Review by Caroline LeBlanc

Reaching for Air

by Gayle Lauradunn

Mercury HeartLink Press, 2014.

ISBN 978-1-940769-17-2

Reaching for Air on Amazon

The poems in Reaching for Air capture, and celebrate, one person’s triumph over grinding poverty, as well as the multigenerational physical and emotional cruelty such poverty can engender.  These poems take the reader beyond racial, historical, and demographic stereotypes: they are about childhood hardships and abuse—physical and emotional—survived by a little white girl in poor, rural American around the middle of the 20th century.   In the attached interview, the poet states clearly that these poems are about her life, and describes how she finally put these difficult personal experiences on paper.  I’ve spoken to many people who want to, or are trying to do just that in a way that creates good poetry, as well as recounts personal experience.  If you are one of these people, and even if you’re not, this book is worth a read because the poems are compelling and just plain good quality.
The book’s fifty-five poems are divided into five sections, plus a prologue and epilogue.  Most are set in the parched and forbidding farmlands of west Texas.  The young girl’s experiences, related largely in the third person, drive most of the poems in this memoir-like collection of poems.  The other driving characters are: a father with wanderlust inherited from his mother, beaten over and over again by the weather and parched farms; a mother, angry about what her life has become, impotent against her husband’s willfulness, and all too ready to take her frustration and anger out on her young daughter.  The dynamics depicted in these mother-daughter poems recall how girls can be hated and mistreated by the very women who should love them  most, because these young girls are painful, jealously evoking, reminders of dreams and hopes forever lost to the grown woman.  
Grandparents are minor characters. The only kindness recorded is Granny’s gift of books “[t]hree times a year”.  However, in the child’s house, even the best of these treasures disappears, only to be found “later/shredded in the trash bin,” presumably by the jealous mother (“Gift”).” Even Sunday’s chicken dinner, and a bountiful peach harvest are tinged with cruelty. After every classically boring Sunday drive, Granddad kills a chicken in front of the child, immediately before the dinner when the child is expected to eat its meat (“Chicken Every Sunday”).  Sweet peaches become a cruel lesson about perceived ingratitude when she refuses yet another peach, and Granddaddy “pushes the golden fruit into her mouth,/the softness hard against her teeth “(“Re-Gold in Sunlight”).  

The only adult without malice seems to be Great-Uncle Buddy who “keeps us all entertained with his story.”  Turns out Great-Uncle Buddy lives in “the great white bed where he lies in fetal position” and has since he was paralyzed at age 17 after he was “thrown from a mule.”  Who had cared for this man is not clear, but he alone among the clan seems free of the cruel rage sprouting from despair and poverty.  The last lines of the poem are: “The skin stretches/over his parchment face as he grins/with the humor he’s invented to keep us there” (“Punch Lines”). And the family was starved for humor.

As is so often the case when the personal mother and/or father is unable to nurture a child, the child in these poems finds solace in nature:  flowers, turkeys, sheep, cows, horses, even snakes.  Not surprisingly, the parents are hardened to and insensitive about even this.  In “At the Zoo” the parents force, then watch, their terrified child ride a circus elephant.  One imagines that they could not understand why the child was not happier and more appreciative about this treat.  Still, the child pulls through, as the “elephant lifts its feet/in rhythm with soft drumming,/sways its stately body/in a cradle song.”  One takes soothing where one can find it.

“Dehorning Molly” is particularly compelling.  It seems Molly is one of the child’s favorite cows, whom she “strokes in rhythm.//traces a white patch over the nose.”   Then:

                Into this animal world
                the men come:
                her father, her uncle,
                the neighbor Mr. Renfrow.
                They carry thick ropes
                and a saw with jagged teeth.
                A thick piece of lumber.

                The child looks out to the field
                 sprouting white bolls.
                 A light breeze
                stirs her hair.
                Through the bellows
                she hears
                the rasp of the saw.

                Later, her father said
                she was too frisky,
                butting into the barn,
                tossing her head
                as though those horns
                meant something.

Clearly, the misogynistic message was not lost on the child.  Yet, despite these wearying incidents of cruelty, the child continues to seek refuge in the natural world, and even manages to redeem some tragic habits of past generations, particularly through travel in the outer and inner world.  “The Visit” recounts the time she took her young son back to her “genesis under west Texas//sky.  He shrinks in this alien landscape/while [she] can breathe again.” She compassionately shows him things intimately familiar to her, yet alien to him.

             On the sheep-graze we find my refuge           
              the oak clump of childhood solitude.
              I tell him to keep walking

              if we see a rattler. It is harmless
             if uncoiled. I forget he has not known
             this since he could walk. His tears

             surprise me.  I point to shapes
             in the clouds, in the sky
             that surrounds him. On the ground

              he draws in the dirt with his finger,
              refuses to look up. His eye unused

              to travelling so far.

In “Birth Rite,” the book’s closing poem, the poet recounts how her father caught her mother eating dirt early in the pregnancy with this future poet. (For those who don’t know, as I didn’t before I took care of my first pregnant patient from the rural South, eating dirt is a bit of a tradition in the South, particularly poor, hungry, and malnourished pregnant women).  For me, the poem calls to mind the Tibetan Book of the Dead, where one confronts the elemental reality of one’s physical non-existence, and in the end lives more fully.  Forever finding comfort in nature, rather than adversity as her ancestors did, the poet writes,
                Perhaps being bread on worms
                is ok    it gives me
                my love of nature
                my desire to be in the woods
                in the mountains
                near the ocian (sic)

Her imaginary journey into the soil, the earth with its worms continues:

                they are at home in the dark
                slowly my arms sink
                into the dirt
                a soft slither startles me
                worms creep up and
                over my back
                at first a few but finally
                i nod good day
                and go on digging

                the ridges of my knuckles
                each finger drops off
                at the joint and
                inches away
                worms basking
                on my back slough off
                and dig beside me
                the tunnels stretch
                into a glow
                ahead I see a spoon

The poems in Reaching for Air are straight forward in their style and the stark honesty of their content.   They tell of the tragic paradox of misguided love, for I am sure that if asked, the parents and grandparents in these poems would say they loved their daughter, and that would be the justification for their behavior. The poems tell of the resilience of a young girl, grown into a woman who can look at the past honestly, and step into the future with courage.  In no way are they self-indulgent or self-pitying.  That fact, and the poet’s craft, especially the rich sensory descriptive details in the poems,  makes reading this book a rewarding, dare I say joyful, experience.  The collection contains previously secret truths from one person’s life, and the skillful telling invites readers to examine other truths hidden in our collective and personal lives.

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