On Loss of Land and Loss of Girlhood: Taneum Bambrick’s Vantage

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Vantage, Taneum Bambrick’s debut collection, is an unusual book. With novelistic commitment to character portrayal, this collection comprises, in lyric prose and documentary poems, a clear-headed journey through ecology and girlhood. Sharon Olds, who selected the volume for the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, writes in her introduction that these innovative poems are of “daring clarity, of uneasy beauty and terror…” Olds proceeds to emphasize the poems’ timeliness in our careening toward “the end of the world as we know it.” Indeed, it’s hard not to interpret Bambrick’s images—which include melted batteries, dead dogs in paper boxes, Happy Meal crowns, outhouses, dilapidated rural prairies––as visionary symbols of our global ecological crises. Our guide to this ruined neo-pastoral is the voice of a young woman working, like Bambrick herself once was, as the only female person on a garbage crew for the reservoirs of a big dam. With the precise eye of a documentarian, she pans through the fictional town of Vantage flooded by the dam, always in search for tenderness amid cruelty.

The first poem in the collection, “Litter,” serves as the introduction to the speaker’s job and voice. She cleverly lists images symbolic of the book’s themes—condoms (sexuality), dead goats (sacrifice), a pit bull (animals), a man’s torso (violence), and, of course, garbage and litter, the shadow side to our relationship with the natural world. The last couplet perfectly sets up the poet’s quest, with irony, with grit: “My litter grabbers outstretched / I’m combing for the bottom half.” In a way, the entire collection operates as an attempt to comb for “the bottom half,” to look for what is lost and heal what has been hurt: animals, families, soil. While each of Bambrick’s poems traces the seams that divide genders, social classes, past and present, earth and human, the speaker simultaneously attempts to administer some intimacy between these binaries. Yet violence prevails, especially against the woman’s body.

Per feminist theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir, woman and her body only exist as “the other” in relation to the male default, inextricable from the man’s body and his desires. Bambrick uses this feminist theory as the foundation for her documentary technique; her poems enact the power play between masculine and feminine energy. In the poems overtly dealing with sexism and assault, she dramatizes the power imbalance through the speaker’s passivity and reluctance to take up space—even in her own poems. The page is populated with indirect dialogue and quotes from the men who attempt to define her. A sharp, even compassionate move on Bambrick’s part, since the restraint, combined with crystalline images, allows her to microscopically study the toxic masculinity imminent amid the garbage crew. “Hard to take you seriously as a man who’s had a saw through his face,” one man says. Another ignores the speaker; others assault her. The women are compared to one another, are verbally attacked. The female body is objectified, violated, her rage and wit misunderstood, her intelligence and strength underestimated. Girlhood remains, like the land, a constant site of male fascination, desire, and violence.

Yet the speaker is not just a victim. Hyperaware of class consciousness and inequality, these poems study nuances of disenfranchisement and poverty. Upon comprehending and unveiling the classist structures of operations such as the dam, Bambrick’s lyric I comes to terms with her own privilege relative to those with whom she works. In “What the Dam Had to Pass,” a poem which discusses powerful fathers, her own included, she proclaims her own advantages while also indicating her disadvantages within the intricacy of power dynamics:

I earned respect through what I pretended not to see. Vodka water bottles. Grayson’s hand wide on my knee. I had the privilege of going in thinking nobody could touch me.

A young woman agreeing to sexual misdemeanor at the workplace is hardly unique—it is unfortunately a fate many women workers and laborers succumb to because they are subjugated in the hierarchy of their workplace conditions, deprived of viable alternatives. Bambrick’s use of end rhymes throughout this poem and many others is a testament to her fine musical ear, but it also cements, through sonic association, the normalized patterns of trivial violence; the repeated sound remains as reliable and inescapable as the bricks of a wall.

While the speaker might be more privileged and educated than the men on her garbage crew, she is dependent on her salary, unlike former high school friends who can afford to tan on the beach on which she picks litter: “Their glowing bodies were the most beautiful I’d ever seen…” But throughout the collection, ecological tragedy—the extinction of flora and wildlife—emerges as the real grief. Of people recreating on the beaches around the dam, she writes:

Spiraling footballs. Different stations of the same country music. None of them thinking their noise as a kind of violence. The steady motions of a deer’s head, as it swam, displaced, between those thin islands.

The speaker’s coming-of-age begins with her sexuality, yet ultimately extends to her eco-consciousness. Loss of innocence here means an environmental awakening; it necessitates acquiring the “register of environmental impact” by understanding our “noise” as violence. The speaker compels us to look at the deer’s head swimming in the sea, envisioning what is approaching by seeing what is already lost.

In “Biological Control Task,” one of the finest and most original poems I’ve encountered in contemporary poetry, Bambrick unearths our responsibility toward that which is ugly, unappealing. This poem, centered around bird carcasses, examines the nuances of sympathy. She sees a pile of dead seagulls, ordered to be killed to “protect salmon.” A dead heron, which ultimately evokes the speaker’s tears, is a more beautiful bird, one the men in the poem anthropomorphize to “our girl”:

He held up both webbed feet.
You could look through her body.
[…] The bird seemed frozen,
wrongly intact––gold eyes cranked
open, neck coiled tight over her slaty back.

The description of the heron as a beautiful yet functional wreck symbolizes not only the wound of woman, romanticized in both literature and art, but also that of nature. The poem ends on one of the men ironically asking the speaker: “Didn’t you care / about the gulls or were they too ugly?” emphasizing, again, the men’s incompetence at extending empathy. But this also leads us to the question of beauty and its value. While the speaker was warned “not to look,” she insisted, and continually insists, on looking. Working on a garbage crew, one must have the willingness to engage with the ugly instead of the beautiful, a fate that Bambrick enacts with her precise figurative language—dead birds are a pile of “dirty laundry,” the stench of death is like “inhaling chlorine.” Bambrick refuses to beautify, to romanticize. The ruminative lyric essay “Sturgeon” discusses the fate of Columbia River sturgeon, which are affected by the infrastructure of the dam; a fish difficult to save because it is “ugly.” How do we decide what is worth killing, what is worth saving on our disappearing earth? And in a society overvaluing superficial beauty, what is our responsibility toward the ugly? Vantage instructs us to repeatedly ask and study these questions until we find a way to empathize with the neglected and unappealing living beings, our most vulnerable members of the ecosystem.

Concerning the sacred connection between femininity and nature in times of urbanization, poet Etel Adnan writes in Of Cities & Women: “What are we going to lose in losing our forests and myths? The myth of the feminine is dying.” Like Adnan’s book, Vantage grieves both the loss of our forests and the loss of the mythical feminine. But Bambrick problematizes this ancient concept by rigorously and soberly reimagining innocence and femininity in times of bionomical disaster. Bambrick’s women—always psychologically nuanced and perplexing—refuse to be romanticized or reduced to a label. Cognizant of their own objectification, they are portrayed to be intelligent, witty, sad, and in constant quest of their agency. Also in “Biological Control Task,” the speaker acutely observes, “When I cried it made them comfortable like I could be / a daughter, wife or something they knew how to see,” the girl knowing more about the men’s emotional inhibition than they know themselves.

Despite perpetual harassment in this hypermasculine space, women bond, and, culminating in a mode of radical feminism, become lovers. “Invitation,” a prose poem featuring a character named Sara, deals with the idea of lesbianism as a reaction to sexual violence enacted by men. Yet queerness in these poems is as variegated as the human psyche and does not exclude heterosexual desire—that would be too facile for this book, which resists easy epiphanies. There is no dichotomy, no certainty in Vantage that is not studied, dissected, and proven to be false. In the same poem, Sara asks, presumably to reclaim her own sexual agency, “Have you ever pictured yourself… being fucked by a group of men?” The speaker is aware of the complexity of Eros, its destructive and healing forces: “She smiled like people smile before they break something.”

Amid all these fractured expectations and the painful loss of innocence, we are consistently given surprising, deeply human moments of tenderness and grace, which elucidate the lyric I’s empathy and strength, her willingness to forgive. Jim, one of the recurring characters, crystallizes to a father figure. “You’re easy for me because I have a daughter,” he says in one of the first poems. “Jim was a dad, he knew to set a flowery weed,” the speaker admits when the two hold a burial ceremony for a dead dog they find boxed amid the garbage. He is compassionate and capable of decency in the face of tragedy: “Those were the ways / he made the work light for me.” Even the figure of Grayson, a violent and incredibly sexist person, is shown in full humanity in the expansive, cinematic portrait “Good Men Process,” in which the speaker comforts Grayson after an incident with a dead bicyclist:

I remembered then how afraid I was of him.
The oil on his face lamp-lit.
The crying gathered at his chin.
I saw him like I’d never seen a man,
digging his forehead into the bones
of my chest, I haven’t hugged a woman in years.

That there is room for vulnerability and compassion here, amid fear and misogyny, attests to Bambrick’s refusal of easy narratives; she is, throughout these poems, entirely committed to illuminating the intricacy of human nature.

Reading this book, I was reminded of great feminist thinkers like bell hooks and de Beauvoir, as well as ecopoets and documentary poets like Brenda Hillman and C.D. Wright. Yet Bambrick’s voice is wholly original in its clarity and colloquial intimacy. Her poetic techniques—narrative, elliptical, lyrical, documentary—defy category. If I were to categorize it, I would say this prophetic collection functions as a radical example of hybridized working class poetry and ecopoetry. Vantage is refreshing and necessary work, reflecting our current moment as it relates to gender and bionomical shifts. Repeatedly, the poet exposes the toxic and glimmering systems to which we are bound in our relationships to each other and to the environment. As Olds puts it in her introduction, Vantage is “a love poem to the creature which is the earth,” instructing us to look at it—the decay and the beauty of it—and to learn to love it, too.

Aria Aber is the author of Hard Damage (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and a 2020 Whiting Award. Her recent poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and The New Republic. She lives in Oakland, California. More from this author →