10 Mississippi

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This book is seductive because, page by page, poem by poem, 10 Mississippi is cyclic and aswirl, is… as flowing and eddying as the river of the title.

Steve Healey’s 10 Mississippi is a wowingly seductive book, and it’s seductive not just because it features the river I happened to grow up within spitting distance of, and not just because Healey’s style has a kinship with other folks I’m fond of (Dean Young seems an overt, interesting presence within). It’s seductive because, page by page, poem by poem, 10 Mississippi is cyclic and aswirl, is, as a book, as flowing and eddying as the river of the title. It may be best to have one of his poems to reference—here’s “Green Shoes,” chosen at random.

If you’re looking for my knees,
they can be found halfway up my legs.
They are not pretty. They resemble
piggy banks that have been broken
and glued back together several times.
Yet they are useful. When I walk,
they allow my tibias to swing
slightly ahead of me into the future.
My feet take turns landing
on a new piece of ground up ahead.
My feet are wearing green shoes,
and when I walk, the grass grows.
I watch how effective the grass is
at growing, except that I’m a liar,
in fact the grass is dying.
It has not rained for weeks
and the grass is now a brown mat.
I think about the other crimes
I could commit. I could kick
a hole in a pony and take all
the gold doubloons that fall out.
Sometimes I walk to that place
where the cop stands in front
of the yellow tape and say,
what happened, officer?
The cop says something but
all I can hear is a child crying.
It sounds like coins hitting the street.
That’s when I know it’s time
to escape. My knees go into action.
I’m walking again. I’m wearing
the ghosts of green cows on my feet,
and they make all the difference.

Toggle up or down for humor, and “Green Shoes,” can be read as something like a representational Steve Healey poem from 10 Mississippi (an unfair phrase, representational poem, but still). First, note the repetition: the green shoes at start and end and currency coming thrice into play (piggy bank, pony’s innards, child’s tears), and note that the currency fundamentally brackets the poem. It’s not a trick or move or schtick or anything, but Healey does this frequently, across lots of his poems, to often phenomenal result (the book’s opening poem, “Lifeboat, Wingspan,” pulls the same trick of repetition except tripled or quadrupled; in a poem like “Green Afternoon,” a grill and the notion of things [pants, bodies/lives] that we insert ourselves into dance sweatily close, causing buzz; section two’s multi-pager “While I Held My Breath Underwater” uses sound, held breath, and stillness as notions to move and build from and with).

Note, also, the actual bricks of the poem: across 10 Mississippi, the poems are made by discrete, direct, declarative lines. “I think about the other crimes / I could commit” is a perfect example of what magic Healey’s abracadabra-ing throughout: what other crime, the reader’s left to ask, have you already committed? That your foot enters the future? That you’ve lied to us? These poems do much—they mean and they make gorgeous noise, and they cycle and repeat—but they imply an awful lot, leave whispery trace, nods toward what came before.

Last: note nature and its degradation and/or death, note the appeal to some authority, and note the half-comic/half-tragic dissolve at the poem’s end (for instance: is this ironic, some clever play of a faux-environmentalist claiming that green shoes are enough? It’s clearly in W.C. Williams/red wheelbarrow territory, ditto’s Frost’s unpopular road, but how to actually take and break down the line is unclear by the poem’s end). These are pattern-ish, of a sort, though not at all in a bad way: reading Healey’s 10 Mississippi is huge fun precisely because of these features that pop up across the poems, variously by poem.

And what do these patterns seem to be doing? What’s Healey getting at? Before looking close at another poem, take just a second to consider the phrase 10 Mississippi. Consider when you’d say it (meaning: what age and in what context). Consider how the word of the river is acting as a measurement of time. Consider that (probably) a high percentage of the time you say ten Mississippi you’re gonna follow it up with ready or not, here I come.

A Life of Consolations

You’ll get your reward in heaven, said my mom
when I didn’t make the cheerleading squad.
I remember this while pretending to study
the street map. Why do these little defeats
keep stabbing me after all these years?
I change. The light changes. I drive
up and down streets whose names
I don’t know. I drive along the river,
curving with its curves. I still
can’t do the splits. At times
I’ve had too many freckles.
I have an old snapshot of them.
Like stars at the bottom of a chocolate milkshake.
That would be a good way to die.

Again: note the repetition, either directly (death opening and closing the poem, cheerleading and then the splits, later) or indirectly (“I change,” he writes, then mentions how at times he’s had too many freckles [meaning: he’ll maybe have too many again soon, or just did recently, or who knows]). The poems are startling silver darting things, fish of meaning, tough to grasp, appearing as one thing in certain light (ha ha ha the second line begs you to chortle) and something else entirely in another (the poem’s huh of an end). Every poem in this book can make the reader feel the breath of impending doom and the breeze of what-if, sometimes back-to-momentary-back, sometimes simultaneously.

Brute facts that should be acknowledged: the book is split into six sections, with the second section featuring one long poem, and the fourth section featuring a poem cycle (I don’t know what it’d be called, but that seems appropriate; if there’s an actual literary term for it, I don’t know it), called 10 Mississippi, which has a poem for each numeral (“1 Mississippi,” “2 Mississippi,” etc.) and sports aspects of narrative (the poem cycle starts with a body being pulled from the river, and notions of seeking, searching, flowing, and obscuring get comingingly considered through the course of the ten poems).

I will say this, aside from brute facts, aside from the pretty magic, cyclic way Steve Healey puts words on the page, how he makes poems: I hadn’t read Healey before, and, on finishing this fantastic book, I felt both sad and happy. Sad that I hadn’t read him before (the man’s got another book, Earthling, also from Coffee House), happy that there’s more out there.

Weston Cutter is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You'd Be a Stranger, Too. He's an assistant professor at the University of St Francis and runs the book review website Corduroy Books. More from this author →