“The Apothecary’s Heir” by Julianne Buchsbaum

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A winning selection in the 2011 National Poetry Series, Julianne Buchsbaum’s The Apothecary’s Heir interrogates the wildness of nature, the decadence of urban sprawl, and the necessity of myth and history in our daily lives. While her third collection maintains a formal cohesiveness, Buchsbaum alternates three dominant modes—unrhymed couplets, block stanzas, and almost-sonnets—with fluidity and subtlety. The result is a haunted and dystopic book, but it’s striking diction, depth, and immediacy are potent proof that The Apothecary’s Heir is one of the year’s memorable offerings of verse, as it thrums with ominous, alliterative laments for our wrecked new century.

No doubt a student of Dickinson, Buchsbaum’s poems regularly disassociate us from the comforts of our known world. There are several pastoral lyrics early in her collection that initially read as traditional, if brooding, nature studies—such as “Leaf Mutterings” and “Eve of Darkness”—which quickly blossom and morph into exotic realms brimming with secrecy, danger, and mysticism. Take “First Love,” where a speaker cannot help but see “nymph-hair, twigs/of brushed gold streaming in wind” as she beholds “the tree’s pained angles” with its “white spots like spittle,/rivulets of gritty shadow on the bark,/the tree, like a great wooden mind.” Personified and pagan, Buchbaum’s vision of nature is an anagogic one, and its presence serves as both a wakeful conscience of, and an indifferent setting for, the human fates that play upon its stage.

The human fates in The Apothecary’s Heir are grim indeed, cast in an age starkly imperial and doomed, where the babble and whir of capitalist domination relentlessly encroach upon the sacred. Readers are forced to inhabit a bleak milieu where “the nation/founders on the fake brown foliage/of its fast-food restaurants” while “a flag jerks/in the wind like someone else’s skin” (“Deep in the Sabbath Dusk”). Even nature must yield to motives that are “huge, indifferent, hoodlum,” where “waves compose their rags of blue” and “a school of mackerel/[are]translated into gore/by the gearwheels/of an ocean liner” (“Seven Views of Longboat Key, Florida”). For all of the vivid, meditative imagery in poems such as “A Death in the Snow” and “In the Beautiful, Long-Gone, and Godless Season of Hereafter,” the dual threats of violence and decay prowl the margins, as Buchsbaum’s sequencing never lets the reader rest.

Though her ethereal work is more reminiscent of Jorie Graham or Mark Strand, Buchsbaum shares a naked and vehement disgust of material culture that is, to varying degrees, palpable in the work of other Midwestern poets such James Wright and Richard Hugo, not to mention her fellow Kansans William Stafford and Ted Kooser. After all, who among us can find good or beauty in a prairie landscape pocked with shopping mall simulacra and the rusted husks of bygone gas stations? Buchsbaum’s outrage at our materialism, spiritual impoverishment, and self-medicated malaise is most evident in poems such as “Postindustrial Sublime,” “For Most of My Life, This Was Never My Life,” “Highland Park, 2004,” and “Still Life with Rooms People Live In.”

The poorer efforts in The Apothecary’s Heir are rare, but seem to result from either syntactical oddness or an inability to limit a poem’s histrionic swooning. Lines like “looking/for wordstations to reside in” and “she comes with a lusty rhythm/and Latinate words”—both from an early poem, “Confession”—are simply clunky, as are parts of her two-page sequence “Summer of Fires,” where we encounter a few unfortunate lines such as “stasis is a place where stars go.” Additionally, while The Apothecary’s Heir seems self-aware that it teeters between the dramatic and melodramatic, “The Day After” (“the day is merely a collection of objects/without color and color without edges”) and “Infant Dusk” (“what I dream makes me sad/and wed to secrecy”) both wallow in melancholia.

It’s easy to overlook such instances, though, when one encounters the eerie melodies of “With Venom and Wonder,” the taut brevity of “Minister of Leaves,” the narrative compression of “Lakeshore Hospital, 1987: A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” and the breakneck enjambment of “One Last Daystar Fades,” although there are dozens of other poems this reviewer could conjure to illustrate Buchsbaum’s range, precision, and craft. Perhaps “At the Syllable Sale,” a delightful whimsy and rare moment of playfulness for Buchsbaum, is worth offering here in its entirety:

At the syllable sale: a tiny loom, a Latin noun.
It is a gold noun, a ghost town, a deathkit held

under a peasant’s lick of standing water.
Wholesale syllables go for the minimum but

may be disfigured. Time blooms like a slow
flower in hot July. At the syllable sale,

some are ruined kings or hapless crones.
At the syllable sale, time holds still in the poppy

flowers. The word idle waits for me
by the wastebasket. At the syllable sale, time

has a blood transfusion; the words worry me,
all the weird terminologies. With a small fist

of syllables, heading for home, I must admit
that the language I know does not know me.

For these reasons and more, The Apothecary’s Heir is a timely collection for this Mayan doomsday year, and one hopes we stall destruction long enough for it to find more readers.

Adam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award, and his forthcoming collections are The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, 2014) and Red Flag Up (Kattywompus, 2013), a chapbook. His recent poems appear or will soon appear in West Branch, Indiana Review, Zone 3, South Dakota Review, and The Cincinnati Review, among others. Tavel is the poetry editor for Conte and a contributing editor for Emprise Review. More from this author →