Woodnote is a layered history, both natural and personal, that is ultimately about how we identify and describe what we encounter in the world, and how we identify ourselves inside that world.
Lately I have been very interested in the spaces between prose and poetry, so-called “hybrid” forms, and poems that push boundaries in terms of shape and form. Christine Deavel’s new book, Woodnote, challenges almost all the norms of a poetry book, beginning with the original shape of the book – a square rather than the usual rectangle. This allows the space for the long lines of some of her prose sections, lists, and other formally innovative content inside her book. Besides its interesting shape, winner of the 2011 Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize, Woodnote, attracted me with its intellectual curiosity and keen attention paid to the small idiosyncratic beauties of the world.
Full disclosure: Christine has been helping me choose books of poetry in her role as co-owner of Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore, Open Books, for over ten years. I used to come in asking for books of poetics, asking for books out of print or obscure, asking about subjects from feminism to Japanese form, and Christine could usually produce an armful of books for me to look through, no matter how odd the request. If you come in asking for “that one poet that sort of sounds like Beth Ann Fennelly but isn’t,” she will help you out. So I had a lot of interest in the kind of poetry someone so constantly exposed to all the strange edges, families, and schools of poetry would write.
Her poems explore the natural world, mostly of her childhood home town in Indiana. Some of the poems read like lyrical expressions, while others include prose musings punctuated by fragments and diaries. Some sections of the book read like a naturalist’s notebooks, filled with barely annotated lists, as if by someone in a hurry to jot down the most minute yet somehow significant information around them. If you read the book closely, the naturalist’s observations here may reveal not only a portrait of the speaker’s surroundings, but of the speaker herself.
The beginning poems of the book start to paint a picture of the poet as she grew up. In “Hometown (Over and Over)” she describes impressionistic memories of the town as the seasons changed:
How big was the town?
One crockery bowl filled with red leaves…
What were your increments?
The beats of the luna-moth’s wings and the pieces of coal
through the chute to the basement.
Who charted these things?
It’s not too late to have noticed, it’s not too late
The most personal of the poems might be the long poem “Economy” that makes up the last full section of the book (which is followed by a brief coda.) The poem describes the poet being entrusted with a set of diaries kept by a deceased female relative, and her relationship to the language and subject matter of these diaries, the way they set off the speaker’s musing paragraphs on family, mortality, and art itself, is the subject of the poem. The relative, Sarah, has diaries that may be similar to many of our relatives of a hundred years ago – the entries direct and repetitive, and Deavel indicates separate entries, perhaps days of weeks apart, with two colons:
:: We washed & canned 15 quart pickles :: We set strawberry plants :: We work at Mary’s red skirt :: We butcher 3 hogs for us 1 for Maggie…
Reading through this poem, I was reminded of how my own Midwestern grandmother’s diaries from the same time period. Sarah’s brief entries indicate a life of hard work, of not enough leisure to draw out a long detailed description or esoteric thought, a life circumscribed in a tightly drawn circle by the rituals of domestic life in a small town, church, and harsh seasons. In contrast, the poet-speaker of “Economy” places her own history against the history of Sarah, listing her favorite books, her relationships, and describing her struggle to create:
This is survival made visible. I am confused about desire and choosing to live. I am confused about art and the making of it. Is it better to make the mediocre because it allows you to get up every day? Or is it better to stop. You carve yourself to make and it’s wrong. A mark of the naïve.
In an interview with The Northwest Book Lovers, Deavel notes about the process of writing “Economy” that “What I felt called to do was to stand next to her, to have her stand next to me, our goods around us. “Economy” is a record of that, I guess. It’s hard for me to write about this piece. It was a pile of scraps that are now stitched together.” The concept of a collage that displays the vast spaces – emotional, spiritual, and artistic – between the speaker and the diarist, between the generations of women living in the same place – also displays what they might share. It’s a fascinating long piece.
The list of books in this poem is also impossible to ignore, indicating as it does various influences that remind the reader that the work in the rest of the book is tied to a fascinating and varied tradition of literature: Lorine Niedecker, Emily Dickinson, Harriet the Spy and Peanuts, Anne Carson, Paul Celan. The combination of “plain speech” and more elevated whimsical language, surreal leaps and naturalistic impressions might also remind the reader of Jorie Graham or Rae Armantrout. It was hard for me not to be reminded of Graham’s Sea Change, especially in section II, the long poem “Drawn,” in which Deavel uses texts including The Birds of Indiana, Cessions of Land by Indian Tribes to the United States and Endangered, Threatened, Proposed, and Candidate Species; these are books you might associate more with a historian or zoologist than a poet, but that she uses them in combination with her own observations to help draw a kind of ecological and political map of her childhood home for her readers.
Reading the first page of this book I was already intrigued by a voice both reticent and exuberant; reading the whole work, I wanted to immediately read it again. I keep finding new details, new charms, new tensions, every time I study the pages. Woodnote is a layered history, both natural and personal, that is ultimately about how we identify and describe what we encounter in the world, and how we identify ourselves inside that world.