My review of Marshall native Alixa Doom’s new poetry collection, A Slow Dissolve of Egrets, appeared in the Saturday, September 6, 2014, edition of the Marshall Independent. This is adapted from that review:
After the second stanza of her poem “Sunday Fishing,” Alixa Doom changes the shape of the poem — breaking from lines of verse into a paragraph of prose poetry:
“Here in the plains where the land trudges back and forth across itself forever there is a need somehow on Sunday to seek out the lake that opens out of the land like an eye of the earth, where you can catch the earth dreaming.”
It is beautiful writing, the work of attentive and elegant poetry. But it also draws on an experience common to most of us in southwest Minnesota — a weekend day at the lake, and the pleasures that come with it.
Southwest Minnesota has a long and formidable line of poets who have been able to combine the two — rich writing and a close, true understanding of the land and people of the prairie.
Doom, a Marshall native who now lives in Minneapolis, joins that line with her first full-length book of poetry, A Slow Dissolve of Egrets, out now from Red Dragonfly Press ($15).
The book possesses a quiet — yet controlled and assured — voice, which claims the ground at the heart of Minnesota’s literary heritage: nature, weather, a healthy kind of solitude, and, importantly, time and room to think about memory, our relationships, our ever-evolving place in our own lives.
That’s a gift, of course: to put readers into a sense of place — the lake on a Sunday, a grove of cedars, or alone in her home after a divorce — and do it in a way that reveals truths about ourselves and an uncommon wisdom about life.
The best poets hone and perfect such a gift with work, patience and care. When that happens, you can get phrases like this, from Doom’s book: “the egret casts a lantern / of solitude across the darkness.”
It’s not that Doom writes only about the area. She doesn’t. The book has poems set in the Caribbean, Iowa, Canada. And it’s not only that she’s from the area. It’s that she gets it, and that southwest Minnesota infuses her voice throughout the book.
Sometimes I felt as if I were reading the poems in a big farm house, at night in the summer with the windows open, wind blowing the curtains lightly and the only light coming from the moon or farm lights. It’s a sensation that’s hard to describe, other than to say it was both relaxing, and, as I read poems about her family, her mother, her daughter, perhaps brought me back to my own grandmother’s farm place. It was a place I wanted to be.
Yet, to have that quiet voice doesn’t mean giving up an authoritative one, and Doom doesn’t. She’s got some wonderful insights and revelations, and strong flexing of poetic muscle in her images and metaphors. Sometimes the metaphors go beyond making a comparison — well beyond — into a sort of shape-shifting effect that is magical.
Here are a couple of examples:
“in town monarchs tumble / like blossoms through a rush of traffic.” The huge shoulders of a bear are “pouring like water,” as it reacts to a caravan of cars. And, in poem with memories of her mother, she writes: “The front porch murmur / of my mother and visitors / blur back into the weather / of old photographs.”
There’s immense sadness in instances, and some lines that sound like southwest Minnesota’s late Bill Holm (“the dead don’t need turn signals.” “The dead have the best view.”). Yet there is also playfulness, delight in words of sound (in one poem, she makes a list of the sounds of a boat in the water: “creak, creak,” “spank,” “slap and splash”).
The second stanza of the poem “Drum” has a tremendous musical feel to it. The last stanza of the same poem describes the act of seeing or understanding nature freshly or anew. It’s interesting that “Drum” follows a poem about Lasik surgery, making for a well-paired set of poems about seeing in new ways, and the discovery it brings.
Some of her poems set in nature carry a strong sense of spiritual healing. Doom pulls deep wisdom from nature, too, as in this case of self-realization: “I begin to feel larger / walking around inside cedars.”
One of the most powerful examples of that is in a poem about the birth of her daughter, and thinking about her growing up: “I wept with exhaustion and the thought / of all I could not protect her from. / Still, I did not know then / the darkest place she must cross, / that wilderness of mother and daughter.”
I’ve underlined so many lines and stanzas and words in the book, starred so many places. Some reward re-reading with more insight. Some you simply celebrate because the writing is beautiful.
Consider this description of migrating swans:
“Their cries to each other petal the air. / Arcs of white necks exchanging places, / they drift from shore to shore / bearing the body / as if it were the soul.”
It’s a wonderful book. It should stand for a long time.