Rediscovering the West

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Using the American West as its central conceit, Cecily Parks’ debut volume, Field Folly Snow, explores the shifting intersections of fear, desire, geography, and history. These are poems populated by horse breakers, saddle thieves, pistolsmiths, widows, and wayward women. One series in the book, “Letters of a Woman Homesteader,” takes its language almost entirely from the real letters of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, a homesteader living at the turn of the twentieth century.

“Most women wouldn’t have been afraid,” Parks writes, locating the book as part of a larger literary attempt to re-imagine the West in feminist terms. It’s a revisionist effort, recasting a traditionally masculine world as a female proving ground, a place of bleakness, beauty, danger, and endless imagination.

As much as these poems tap into a mythic story of the West, however, they are not linear narratives, but circuitous maps of anxiety and desire, a portrait of an inner world masquerading as meditations on people and place. In “Our Despised and Unhistoric West,” Parks writes, “So much ardor in this interior,” simultaneously describing the inside of a hotel and the emotional tenor of the speaker. This is one of Parks’ signature strategies, locating the reader in time and place even as she obscures the boundaries between place and feeling.

In “Letter to the Pistolsmith,” she writes:

…We met once. You talked of metal, wood
and mother-of-pearl, but I was distracted with my death. What
I mean to say is that I never knew your name, but I understood
the thing you said about happiness, what it meant, even tempo-
rarily, like an oyster with a pearl. I am certain you meant the
gun, but I was distracted because I wanted to be a mother. In
your workroom the rain was made of metal. I was being hit by
triggers. Your workroom limned by barrels black as a river a cow
dies beside. What was that thing you said about the body? I am
certain you meant the gun, but I was distracted because I wanted
description and the gun had already been described.

Although this is a poem about the pistolsmith, it’s also about the speaker’s state of mind, the elliptical structure foregrounding her obsession with the gun. The outer world grows more strange and ominous as the speaker’s inner world emerges through associative leaps from gun to death to motherhood, then back again. Many of the book’s best poems move in this manner. Often, what saves them from solipsism is their clear attempt to assert worlds of feeling, the self struggling against narrative closure and the limitations of language.

In several of the poems, the drifting consciousness of the speaker is both resisted and accentuated by a skillful management of form, lines and stanzas yoking the poems together even as they help blur the distinction between idea and thing. In “Dear William, the Cottonwoods Are Letting Go,” the form does essential work:

As they ought to.
Catkin, bit

of cotton. Each
rib spindly,

astral, petal,
auroral, arboreal.

Aural, oral,
fluff. Falling

generosity, fertile
interstices. Seed

pods seeping
in doorways, altering

hallways, aleatory.

Here the couplets act as containers for the spilling language, the sharp enjambment complicating the meaning as the short lines neaten the poem on the page. Line bleeds into sentence: “fluff. Falling” becomes “Falling//generosity,” and sound drifts into sound: “Aural” into “oral,” “altering” into “aleatory.” Again, the outer world blends with an inner one, both coming together and breaking apart only to come together again. The poem ends: “announcing ripeness/ whitely. I have// been thinking:/ A warm snow.” Even without the notes at the back, which tell us the poem references William James’s writings on human consciousness, we can sense the subject in the form as it erases the boundary between the physical and the conceptual, using image, line, sound, and sense, a drifting intelligence vividly remaking the world.

If occasionally the poems are marred by self-consciousness, or if some grow too cryptic or self-enclosed, it seems an understandable and perhaps even inevitable risk of the larger aesthetic project, and any snags are quickly glossed in the book’s larger sweep. What makes Field Folly Snow such an exciting debut is its simultaneous commitment to feeling and mystery, the record of a restless mind at odds with the world around it. It’s a revisioning of the American West that is also a portrait of the self, unknowable and untamable, the one true last frontier.

Bruce Snider is the author of The Year We Studied Women, winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in poetry. A former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, his poetry has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Ninth Letter, and PN Review. More from this author →