Risa Denenberg: RAIN/DWELLER

RAIN/DWELLER, Risa Denenberg. MoonPath Press, P.O. Box 445, Tillamook, OR 27142, 2013, 96 pages, $16.99, paper, http://MoonPathPress.com.

Yes, it IS National Poetry Month. Instead of my usual every-day-in-April poetry-binge, I am committed to reading a book of poems each week this year, and posting a review here. So far I think I’m 13/14, but this week I’m determined to catch up.

For the last couple of days I have been reading Risa Denenberg’s Rain/Dweller. The poems are, as Rena Priest says in her cover blurb, “honest and unflinching.” They are also, Priest continues, “temper[ed]  with tenderness, vulnerability, beauty, and delight.” Indeed. David Guterson says of reading these poems: “Part of the loveliness for me was the expectation of arriving at yet another arresting line—of being brought to a halt by something piercingly true.” These 71 poems remind us that if difficult truths are … well, difficult … there is something beautiful about looking closely, unflinchingly, at them.

Rain/Dweller embraces loss; AIDS and Covid play important roles here, as does aging, parenthood, and climate change. “I dreamt you went missing, left without luggage” one poem begins (“Selfie with Baggage”); another, “Start with the cracked teapot” (“Intestate”). A family nurse practitioner, Denenberg writes in “The Fragrance of Crushed Fruit”:  “O death: you are not a river, but I have careened your banks / my whole career, studying your silences, / submitting to your elegies.” In “Remembering Rachel Carson”: “I can’t revive my dad or MLK, all my corpses, the / homeless sleeping in parks under statues, the ruined / earth, Rachel Carson’s eyes.” Were it not for the tenderness, the beauty and delight, it would be too much to take in.

As an example of the “unflinching honesty,” I want to share one poem from the sonnet sequence, “Post-Human.” This is a 19-poem chronicle where Denenberg calls things by their right names, and calls us to accountability:

We know we’re unprepared for what’s in store.
We won’t be going home again. What was home
anyway? Wonder Bread and Log Cabin syrup?
Pabst Blue Ribbon and Twinkies? Or was it where
we learned that the birthday balloons we released
did not go to heaven; they killed turtles. We buried
pets in the backyard and fled across continents.
Too late I saw it was I who colonized, sanctioned
slavery, flattened Hiroshima. Our bodies contain
sewage, double lattes, oncogenes. We angst about
the planet and fill our homes with shit. We plug
the ocean with plastic and expect lunch at noon,
milk and crackers at bedtime. Truth time:
we’ve committed the unforgivable and buried it.

—Risa Denenberg, from “Post-Human” (p. 31)

In the first poem, “Old Trees, Old Lovers: A Postscript,” Denenberg writes, “I love what is gnarly, what is braided— / banyans and mangroves, the hued peeling bark of madronas— / in the same way I love my worn, battered boots. / I know my position. I’ve unwound my watch.”

Owning and owning up to what is gnarly, braided, battered, unwound strikes me as a good place to start if we want to effect real change in the world.

Denenberg has written eight collections of poetry. To read more about her, begin with her website (and read one of my favorite poems in the book, “Enough Beauty in This World”) at https://risadenenberg.com.

Rena Priest, “Sublime, Subliminal”

SUBLIME, SUBLIMINAL, Rena Priest, Floating Bridge Press, 909 NE 43rd Street, #205, Seattle, Washington, 98105, 2018, 48 pages, $10, paper, www.floatingbridgepress.org.

This August I am once again not doing the #SealeyChallenge. I gave some thought to it—reading a poetry book a day for the month of August, then simply posting a picture to Instagram—but…I get so much out of my April poetry-book marathon that I can’t imagine not sharing a longer reflection. The April project always ends up trashing any other plans for the month, and it always ends up being worth it.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that if you feel led to read a poetry book a day, and reflect on what you find, I HIGHLY encourage you to do so.

Today, because it was left over from my April book stack, I decided to read Rena Priest’s Sublime, Subliminal, which was a finalist for the 2018 Floating Bridge Chapbook competition.

I always love Rena’s poems. She was our Washington Poet Laureate for two years, 2021-2023, and, among so much else as part of her heart-filled service to the poetry community, edited the brilliant I Sing the Salmon Home.

The fifteen poems in Sublime, Subliminal are not straight-forward, easily understood poems. They challenged me. When I let myself drop fully into the project, they also delighted me. Opening lines such as, “Your kiss is backlit pixilation” (“Canadian Tuxedo”); “The bookshelf is a psychic vortex” (“The Final Word”); or this sentence, “In the darkness of the cupboard, / the inner life of the water glass / is not empty” (“Inner Life of the Water Glass”) pushed me to see and think differently.

When I reached the acknowledgments page I was tickled—and not altogether surprised—to discover that the poems were inspired by Jim Simmerman’s “20 Little Poetry Projects.” Years ago, when my children were young and I was a new not-yet-tenured college teacher, I came across this exercise in The Practice of Poetry (edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell), and it worked so well for me that I stopped using it after a few poems. It felt like cheating! Rena Priest, so much smarter, put together a whole book.

The poems are longish, but you have to see at least one. I chose this poem because it’s sexy and unexpected, and has an opening conceit that blows my mind. The poems, the book over all, has an opaqueness that makes me think of my professor who used to say, “It’s a poem! Stop making sense!”

Indistinct Features

Your face is a movie screen.
There are two matinees
and three features every day.
Your smile incites the Theremin
to which I react with acumen.
You were one thing. Now another;
tasted like sugar, now like butter.
Mr. Tom Savini, Sultan of Splatter,
Godfather of Gore,
the orchestra can see you
around that corner, behind that door,
cooking up some violence.
The violins are going crazy
and I will react with the antonym
of acumen when you come to slay me;
But the angels will sing a chromatic hymn
when your demons come for you,
to do you like Mercutio,
find you a grave man tomorrow.
“YOLO,” the kids will say,
“There’s something about an open grave
that makes me amorous—libidinous—
downright horndog AF.”
Gotta replace a life with a life.
Gotta get in the pudding club.
I’ll give you the sweet pearl
of my sympathy, swathed
in the nacre of my spiritual oyster,
mounted in a shining ring.
Poke a hole in the curtain between
the living and the dead. Now
it’s a peep show for your soul.
If you peek, you’ll see the day
where we all go back to analog.
Colloids and emulsions on reels
instead of coitus and emotions in files.
Tomaten auf den Augen Haben.
Images flicker
24 times per second across your face.
I can’t keep hold of your features.
There’s a feather
where your mouth is supposed to be.
It flutters when you say,
“Oh come on baby—
don’t look at me that way?”

—Rena Priest

If you are interested in trying out Simmerman’s Twenty Little Poetry Projects, you can find it on-line. Or you could buy a copy of The Practice of Poetry, which is packed with detailed poetry prompts. Many many used copies available.

I Sing the Salmon Home

I SING THE SALMON HOME: POEMS FROM WASHINGTON STATE, edited by Rena Priest. Empty Bowl Press, Chimacum, Washington, 2023, 275 pages, $20 paper, www.emptybowl.org.

I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same. That’s what I believe in. Those who learn to listen to the world that sustains them can hear the message brought forth by salmon.

—Billy Frank Jr. (epigraph to I Sing the Salmon Home)

Yesterday’s mail brought this delightful compendium stuffed with salmon poems. Editor Rena Priest (our current Washington State Poet Laureate) has selected 167 poems as varied as wild salmon themselves. The section titles give us a clue to the contents: “Wild, Sacred,” “Sojourn,” “Invisible Thread,” “Fish School,” “Gratitude,” “Choices,” “Vigil,” “What We Owe.” With a preface from Priest herself, and an introduction by Empty Bowl co-publisher Holly Hughes, this anthology is truly a gift.

In the preface (a rich compendium, itself), Priest outlines “the life cycle of this anthology,” and continues:

I am a Lhaq’temish woman—a member of the Lummi Nation. We are salmon people. Lummi is a fishing culture. We invented the reef net—an innovative technology dating back more than ten thousand years….In the cosmology of the reef net, the net symbolizes a womb, and the salmon are the sacred spark of life that will carry the people into another cycle. (xiv)

In the net of this collection, there is so much bounty. This, for instance, the title poem, fittingly by Andrew Shattuck McBride: [note: the last line of each stanza should be indented; if anyone knows how I fix that, please let me know!]

Winter Run, Whatcom Creek

A close friend says she had a fabulous salmon dinner
prepared by her daughter’s spouse. I have questions, ask,
“What kind of salmon?” She smiles. “The good kind.”
I cheer the salmon on.

I am not of this place, forego eating salmon. Others—my
sisters and brothers, and orcas—must have salmon to survive,
to renew their lives, their compact with these lands and waters.
I too sing the salmon home.

By choice I have no permit or pole or lure.
I receive sustenance from watching the lean clocks
of salmons’ bodies pushing against creek waters.
I cheer the salmon on.

Lines and color-infused lures hang entangled in trees’ branches.
A beefy, youngish man with a careful blank expression
sits on a bench. His young do, leashed, lolls nearby.
Beyond, on bloodied grass, two salmon pant
I sing the salmon home.

I have questions, decide finally not to ask. What do I know?
This: Along a short stretch of creek just below the noisy falls,
salmon—so close to home—swim a gauntlet. And this;
Salmon strive to live till they spawn.
I cheer the salmon on.

—Andrew Shattuck McBride

You know McBride’s name as he was one editor of the recent anthology, For Love of Orcas, from Wandering Aengus Press, and he was one of the people who encouraged Priest to do this book.

I Sing the Salmon Home contains so much lush detail, so much praise, so many ripples of words: “sweet water, sun-flecked, flung skyward” (Joanna Thomas); “tease apart the iridescent / infinite in every scale” (Shankar Narayan); “Salmon running the Sultan // River in a long silver link chain with / amethyst and ruby cabochon eggs” (Laura Da’); “Between sparse old shoreland spruce / the moon is a silver wing” (Robert Sund). With 167 poems and poets to choose from, all I can say is that making choices for this review was not easy.

And, yes, lots of poems about eating—and blessing—salmon, or, perhaps I should say, how the salmon blesses and nourishes us. So, one more short poem, this one written as a “nondominational blessing for meals and gatherings” (as we might consider this entire collection):

Water by Salmon

As life is taught by death,
and the Sun by Space,
so Clouds are taught by Land
and Rains by Place.

As Mountains are taught by Plains,
and Rivers by Lakes,
so Trees are taught by Soils,
and Elements by their Weight.

As Deserts are taught by Shores,
and Ocean Waves by Wind,
so Depth is taught by Height,
and Tides by Celestial Spin.

As Sound is taught by Silence,
and Insight by Reason,
so humans are taught by Water
and Water by Salmon.

—Phelps McIlvaine

I hope I’ve inspired you to want to hold this book in your hands. It will be in public libraries, as well as available from Empty Bowl Press’s website and your favorite independent bookstore.

And, yes, it is National Poetry Month, and what better month to be reading a poetry book-a-day? If you’re curious, you can skate back to my earlier Aprils (as I’ve been doing these poetry-book-a-day blog posts for a few years now). I also want to apprise you of the August poetry book challenge, which you can read about here—https://www.thesealeychallenge.com/—or here, at Kathleen Kirk’s blog—https://kathleenkirkpoetry.blogspot.com/2022/08/mathematics-for-ladies.html (or at ANY of her August blogposts).