by Ann Williams
Poet Deborah Poe’s newest book, “Elements” (2010, paper, Stockport Flats) functions—simultaneously—as a collection of poems, as a book-length poem, and as a science textbook actively mapping the inner workings of the human heart.
Each poem—or chapter, if you will—takes as its title one of the elements from the Periodic Table—from the friendly, children’s-doctor’s-office-wall elements of calcium, potassium, and oxygen to the metals of copper, nickel, and silver to the college-textbook (and precisely researched) elements of radon, boron, and ununhexium—and with each, Poe, like Rumpelstiltskin, spins one mixture into another. But instead of mere fairy-tale gold (which, lest we forget, is the twenty-sixth element), Poe gives us the earth as it exists. Through the lens of science and broken-up text, she offers a fresh, unflinching gaze on that which makes us plant, that which makes us mineral, and that which makes us human.
In structures and rhythms that call to mind the work of Theodore Roethke, the work of Stephen Kuusisto, the work of Rebecca Seiferle, the opening poem, “Silicon (Si)” begins: “most people have/heard of silicon breasts”, before turning its scrutiny on a way of life that puts the natural elements of “oats wheat and ash” and an “entire planet” at risk. In these poems, Poe neither assigns culpability nor bestows grace: her lines simply bear stoic witness. The second poem, “Hydrogen (H)”, moves from the human—a woman’s voice—to a:
tornado warning rain
flash flood sheets
across country roads
a constant thundering sky
a universe 90% by weight
such an essentialist life
your organic compound…
finishing with the hard truths, of “mines, oils, and gas wells—//mute oceans, rivers and screams”
“Life” and “death” are not abstract poetic concepts in these poems—they are conscious physical realities, not restricted to the human world. The world in these poems is the world of the sparrow, of titanium, of branches moving in the wind, of flowers, hot springs, gypsum, of—in the poem “Carbon (C)”—the “first picture of the earth, you know/was the one from the spaceship/with the bright yellow sun behind it/lighting up some fine angles/for the ever us after.”
These are essential poems that look directly at the world, and, through scientific precision and keen attention to voice and dialect and motivation, describe both humans and the universe in which humans move with a clear, revealing eye.
Born and raised as a self-described “military brat” in Texas, Poe has lived throughout the United States and abroad, including work as a bartender and as an environmental activist. She received her masters’ in arts in creative writing from Western Washington University, and the influence of her time in the Pacific Northwest can be felt in such poems as “Magnesium (Mg), or Basalt” in which a Native creation story told by Clarence Picknerall in 1951 “with a hand movement to suggest the lapping of water against the shore” is re-told from the viewpoint of fifty years later, in which “evil reveals itself as thoughtlessness” and
“[r]evivals and missionaries cannot do this justice”—with the only remaining links to the world of the creation story revealed as the elements of ocean, of rain, of mountains. And of story.
Poe’s voice revels in breadth, and depth. In “Aluminum (Al), the voice shifts to pure Texarkana: “it ain’t my fault we alone oh brittany baby you pretty wild horse with your pink-toed smile you beautiful girl”, she writes, in a poem in which the narrator begins being “felt torn by dogs” while inhaling “every cancer stick,” and finishes: “if i had those horses you promised/i could run them through my hair/thick blades/of grass with yellow leaves/gallops overshadowing the night.”
But this collection never forgets that it is a book of poems, not stories. The pleasures of this collection are also the rhythms of Poe’s language. In “Tantalum (TA)”, she writes:
buried with tin
seabed’s invisible backbone
buckets, big cups, hydro-cyclone
pulley roams from dredge to deep sea
language that insists—language that demands—to be read aloud, language in which the hard consonants of “dredge” give way to the slow openness of the vowels of “deep” and “sea”. Later in the poem, we find ourselves “on the rig pumping dirt through screen” in muscular Anglo-Saxon consonants before moving to the openness, again, to the slow, open vowels and unpunctuated listing of an open world: “from gravel—dried bagged shipped then free”.
Capturing the multiple elements of disparate voices, stories, and songs, “Elements” is nothing less than an attempt at the full experience of life and non-life, from coastal storms to turbulent bedrooms to the chemical composition of dreams. We encounter Japanese fishermen, voices in Icelandic, step into ekphrastic poetry written from paintings, prowl from Scotland to Chernobyl (in “Plutonium (Pu)” and finish—in “Ununoctium (Uuo)”—following “the evergreen trailmarkers/bridging this life between.”
Deborah Poe is the author of “Our Parenthetical Ontology” and “Elements”: both will be featured at the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference bookstore. Poe will be teaching an afternoon workshop at the Conference on Saturday, July 23. For more information on her work, please follow this link.