Lives of Trees and People: A Reading of Jenifer Browne Lawrence’s One Hundred Steps from Shore.

Black-and-white photographs of trees—standing solitary, or in groups, or in thin, vulnerable lines like military soldiers; or photographed up close, with their arms, their biceps, their long arcing fingers extending out in a big canopy; or photographed along a coastal shore, limbs leaning out over saltwater—punctuate Jenifer Browne Lawrence’s collection of poems One Hundred Steps from Shore, and throughout the collection trees—solid, stable, yet surprisingly delicate—stand as a metaphor for the lives of humans: for our strengths, our weaknesses, our joys, our pains.

In this collection, trees are named: they are spruces, they are cedars, they are pines, Douglas firs, cottonwoods, madronas with “safe peel/and smooth, its flesh of hers.” With “scars deep as roots”.

Onehundredstepsfromshore Browne Lawrence’s full attention to the natural world–one can smell in these poems the twilight, the grasses, the cottonwoods, the pines; one can feel the summer heat–leads to trust in her focus on human lives, as well. These are poems that demand to be read aloud, so that we can listen as the rhythmic cadences raise questions (and refuse easy answers—like footsteps raise dust). This is a book of woodsmoke, of firelight, of red salmon and scrub pollen and “flame ochered fir”, and of humans seeking anchor, seeking roots.

Written in memory of family members who have passed on, One Hundred Steps from Shore is an elegy for the living; a goodbye to those who have left “winging away/without looking back”.

In the title poem, “One Hundred Steps from Shore”, dedicated to the memory of her sister Carolyn, the narrator stands in witness. “He asks me what I saw/what I heard”; “I tell him I smelled pennies./I tell him I saw her and she was fine, lying there,/hair in her eyes and a puddle beneath her head.”

In this poem, as in the others, there is no answer to confront the loss; there is only earth and sea; there is only the holding of “pieces of sky in our hands”. Nothing less than an exploration of the outward strength and the inward fallibility of lives  is at stake here, as Lawrence reminds us, writing that “the cottonwood leaf can be taken apart.” The journey is toward empathy, toward a mutual understanding of others, and of our place as part of the natural earth.

“Maybe were were making angels”, the narrator says, in the poem “It Was Snowing and It Was Going to Snow” (the title taken from the Wallace Stevens poem).

“A stationwagon swerved”, she writes; a “white helicopter/took you”

 We walked around the ice
 to catch the school bus
 to come home. The stain
 seeped all the way to the asphalt
 all the way to hibernating
 iris in the yard. Each snowfall

 brought the plow, its blade
 uncovering your blood. You relearned
 our names, the cupboard where we kept
 the toys. You were younger, different.
 We bought you a cat of your own,
 Black as your new-grown hair.

Through poems based in an acute sense of detail and full immersion in the senses, Browne Lawrence’s narrators seek to understand the experiences of others.

“I don’t know how the rest of the world writes,” Browne Lawrence said, in an interview with the Crab Creek Review, “but I have a confession: at the top of the page, I have no idea where I am going. In fact, I seldom begin with an idea at all. Writing, for me, begins with words—a phrase from a novel or poem I’ve been reading, a newspaper headline, or a fragment of speech I’ve overheard somewhere.”

In “Home Economics,” the narrator seeks to understand the effect of molestation on a classmate:

Laura’s split ends filter sunlight
onto my jeans. She sits sideways
at her desk, holding a photo
by one corner. She looks me

in the eye, says while she was sleeping
her dad took off his pajamas
and snapped away. Sometimes
she wakes up to find him on her bed.

The poem ends with the narrator pushing a pin into her palm, “trying to feel it/to come as close as I dare/to bleeding. The sun is warm/on my shirt.”

In these poems, poetry is the sharp pin of empathy; words are as close as we can come to piercing through to the understanding of another.

In “And We Are Bound Away”, the narrator explores a suicide, beginning:

Joel taught my sister to lead the grouse,
 to shoot in front of its path so that the bird flew
 into the buckshot, so that, he explained,
 it wasn’t really her doing the killing.
 When Joel joined Search and Rescue
 he couldn’t have known a 727
 would slam into the mountain,
 that there would be no rescue,
 that he’d become a garbage man
 maneuvering halves of bodies
 into plastic bags…

As the poem continues, we follow Joel, who keeps “one hand at his belt” when he travels. “In the air, on the ground,/it didn’t matter, he said, he’d rather be tossed/through a windshield into a Sitka spruce.” He practices yoga and massage, he rubs the narrators “calves/ in his palms,/kneaded/the tension he found.” And we follow him until he steps “in the path/of a Greyhound bus, one hand/gripping the buckle of his belt.”

While—and maybe even because—Browne Lawrence never shies away from writing in witness to human pain, she locates all of these poems within the context of the natural: like trees, we humans face lives that end, but also live, and there is sunlight, and there are sofa pillows, and there is bread dough, and celebrations with each other, and there is the lapping of waves against the shore.

Jenifer Jenifer Browne Lawrence leads an afternoon workshop on Friday, July 22, as part of the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. Here is her class description:

“Disposable Memories”
Why is it that we can’t throw away those scraps of random and apparently insignificant memories? Inconsequential bits of our lives rattle around in our heads, only to pop up at unpredictable moments. Remember the time the dog got loose and your father ran outside in his underwear to catch him? How about the time you stuffed an entire Moonpie in your mouth on a dare? Borrowing (stealing?) a trick or two from contemporary poets, we will recycle these scraps of memory into startling, engaging poems. Adapted from an exercise by Steve Kowit. Bring your notebooks!