Tiff Dressen’s second full-length poetry collection, Of Mineral, employs a contemplative and spacious yet muscular verse to explore several interwoven topics: experiences of alienation and belonging, the respite of love and companionship, a kinship with historical and contemporary LGBTQ art and activism, relationships between humans and other species, colonial legacies and modern-day inequality, and the human body as a creative force. In fifteen free verse poems of varying lengths, the speaker wanders through a series of physical and metaphysical spaces as if seeking a home, and engages with the elements, inhabitants, and landscapes along the way.
Of Mineral opens with a concise poem, “Theirs.” The title expresses a strong sense of belonging, a social anchor, and also acts as a nod to non-binary gender identity. “Theirs” begins with a rejection of dressed-up femininity paired with an expression of desire:
The core of the poem is an indirect rebellion:
Violet, both the color and the flower, is a longstanding LGBTQ and specifically lesbian symbol. These violet windchimes are doing the talking. The last line, “Yoked for zero / gravity,” sends the reader further into the book with a sense of tension. One is tethered by the sense of belonging (theirs) while anticipating a weightlessness or release to come.
After the opening poem, the book follows a loose trail from city to sky to sea and ultimately into the earth, though not all the poems directly relate to these themes. Readers may like to refer to “Theirs” while reading the rest of the book. As one moves through this collection into more metaphysical spaces, this poem stands out in having a more tangible expression of identity and struggle than many of the others. At times, this makes for an intriguing contrast; ultimately “Theirs” helps to place the whole collection in a political light.
In “A Letter in May: from Portola, San Francisco,” the second poem in the collection, the speaker walks through the city amidst economic inequality suggested by “structural scars,” “the Salesforce tower” and “‘the tragedy of vehicular homelessness.’” There is also the beauty of trees and flowers and “comfort-in-mass the / weight of those / I love upon me.” The phrase “This city is a labyrinth / I walk” appears three times in this long poem.
Is the speaker trying to find the center or the exit of this maze as they navigate a landscape of inequality and damage? “Invasive species” conjures the legacy of Spanish colonialism and American imperial expansion (San Francisco was originally inhabited by the Ramaytush Ohlone people), modern-day gentrification, and the disastrous pattern of humans overtaking the habitat of other species. In the context of history and the present day, where does a body fit in in this city? These lines also suggest being out of place in terms of gender and sexuality:
“Anders als die Andern” translates from German as “Different from the Others,” a reference to a 1919 film that showed a sympathetic portrayal of gay men in defiance of the then criminalization of homosexuality. Though the speaker experiences the body as “different” and “invasive” while walking through the city, the body is also fertile. Near the beginning of this poem, the image of a “corpse / flower death camas” shifts to the image of a flower that emerges from the speaker’s body in a dream:
Sightings of specific plants, flowers, and trees appear throughout this book: “pinus pinea / umbrella pine Italian stone pine” creating a particular sense of place and revealing a way of experiencing the natural world through botanical knowledge, all while contributing an imagery of life and creativity. Ultimately, the poem closes on a note of possibility, where the speaker is in an abandoned greenhouse: “It’s still warmer here.”
The second phase of this book begins with poems that feature constellations and other aspects of the night sky, also of interest in Dressen’s first book, Songs from the Astral Bestiary (Lyric& Press, 2013). In “Dark Sky Preserves,” the poem opens: “Because I wanted to learn how / to look at the sky / again.” Moments of deep beauty are present in this poem:
The speaker also hints at a concern about how one engages with the natural world in a capitalist or scientific context:
The poems in Of Mineral are largely written from either a first person or a unified first personal plural point of view. One exception is “Fugue: a poem for multiple voices.” According to the book’s notes, this long poem “features voices both living and deceased,” including two primary voices: Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science who was forced into medical treatment for homosexuality, and Rantes, a character in a 1986 Argentinian film who shows up in a psychiatric hospital claiming to be an alien. Like a fugue musical piece, which starts with one instrument playing a short melody and builds to incorporate many, this poem adds more and more voices that build to a climax in which “We are all / speaking parts” … “We are all responders” and “transponders” and “All strings of the same / length tuned to the same.”
The third phase of the book begins with “Night Ark: Poem in October,” in which the speaker starts out as “Sea starved” and rows through a body of water at night.
The fish speaking through the lungs is perhaps an acknowledgment of shared evolutionary roots. This is followed by the presence of a large, loud mammal and questions of who is native or invasive with the survival or demise of beings or species at stake. Some form of selection is in play, whether driven by humans or some other force.
Following two poems about the sea, the poem “Earth’s Body” opens with a striking stanza:
The earth is fertile ground for seeking one’s roots and connection to others. Considering exhaust from a tailpipe and a “wild-root” plant: “we are of the same lineage.” The speaker continues to seek a place of belonging: “we were denied the original / forest… claim space, light, water / and fail.” Ultimately, at the end of this poem, the earth’s body mirrors or makes possible an encounter with another human:
The closing poem, “Abecedary: in four parts,” is an alphabetical acrostic poem that reprises many of the elements of this collection. Minerals and plants are fertile source material: “iron melted,” “cobalt,” “minerals / in transit / nasturtium bright.” The last few lines echo the presence of violet in the opening poem, “Theirs”:
The last line, “yearning zenith,” recalls the opening poem’s “Yoked for zero / gravity” in both its letters and its sense of striving and desire. The restraint of the yoke is gone, the speaker is renewed (“anew”), desire remains.
In Of Mineral, Dressen utilizes passionate yet concise verse to illustrate both an out-of-placeness and a sense of belonging within many of the interior and exterior worlds we traverse. Like the best poetry, these works contain great specificity while leaving ample room for one to make their own connections to the text. After multiple readings, this collection calls the reader back for one more dive into its rich content and energetic form.