The Mining Camps of the Mouth by George Kalamaras

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There’s a line from a Cormac McCarthy book that’s always stuck with me. It goes, “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” I’d like to think that McCarthy is someone who understands something about what makes the American West—whose strange power has often been mapped in trails of spilled blood—such an enduring source of fascination. George Kalamaras’s 2012 full-length collection of poems, The Mining Camps of the Mouth, is haunted by a remembrance of an idea of the West, its language and imagery the stuff of grainy black-and-white cowboy films, the oily heat of the red sun setting over the poet’s mountains of memory.

Everywhere dead animals on the heavenly wall
had the look of knowing what stood
behind brown vacant glass. Eyes shot inward
like a Monet lily swallowing a bridge,
like frightened eggs at the spring pleading.

History is something that lives as much inside us as the things that surround us. The Mining Camps of the Mouth is a book defined by a history written in “words that had been held before in the mouths of the dead.” These are poems that unearth the self as something buried in a cultural ideal; like sifting for gold on a riverbed, Kalamaras filters out the past—scars and all. “I kept searching for lost parts of myself I’d implanted,” he writes, “through thousands of fantasies, into the bodies of women I barely knew.” And then, “I kept trying to write myself out of my past.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the title poem. A quick skim of the text reveals any number of words and terms you might find hundreds of times over in one of Louis L’Amour’s frontier stories: wildfire, ranch, hot iron, leather, ore, cowboy, cattle, high-country. But this is just surface stuff. The poem itself is about telling and remembering, about the way the coasts of time recede beyond “our tubercular tense,” the physicality of literally shaping history in the moment. “One of my many pasts had finally caught up with me. Reed-bound, mummified. It spoke, she spoke.” It isn’t immediately apparent what Kalamaras means when he refers to the “mining camps of the mouth,” but the way he employs language and its permutations toward clarity, gradually morphing what has come before into something unexpected, oftentimes beautiful, is something to behold:

In the mining camps of my mouth, I kept bending a pan of her purest gold. Leaping up into me like wildfire. Even at high altitude columbine grow. The lung is an amazing organ. An origami crane in the chest. We need new names just to breathe. Names of destruction and love. Names that wing us into the ever-hopeful West.

“An origami crane in the chest.” This is the kind of thing that can only be hatched by digging deep. Luckily enough, digging deep (and far and wide) is something Kalamaras does with confidence. Throughout the book’s seventy-something pages, there are many other surprising twists waiting to be uncovered. Organized into four sections—“House of Green Buffalo Hides,” “The Water Trade,” “Words Held Before in the Mouths of the Dead” and “A Preface to the West”—the poems of The Mining Camps of the Mouth strike a wide range of inspiration and reference points: There is the presence of Jack Spicer, whose poetry not only provides the epigraph to not only the book itself but also opens one of its most memorable poems, “The Grave Witchers”; newspaper articles from the late nineteenth century; an evening at a saloon in Big Timber, Montana; rock and roll guitarists, the list goes on.

The final section, composed of a single poem title “Preface to the Second Edition of the West,” is just that—a preface. As a footnote helpfully explains: “Indeed, this is a preface to the actual West, not a book, much less a book of poems about it. Furthermore, it is not an afterword, except only in the sense that the travails of the West—the real West—have been known to neutralize all sorts of opposites: before and after; yesterday and a day; blood and less blood; and before-blood and death.” And so what is the real West? Kalamaras refers to it as something that has died, as both a location and a state of mind. It is myth and it is memory. It is blood as much as the sun in the sky is blood. It is the past—part of our past anyways—and in these poems it is real.

David Peak's most recent book is The River Through the Trees. His blog is He lives in Chicago. More from this author →