Saturday, May 02, 2015

Airstream, by Audrey Henderson

Airstream, by Audrey Henderson

Homebound Press, 2014 $16.95

Review by Denise Provost

The cover of Audrey Henderson’s first published collection of poetry, Airstream, speaks of motion – the bulbous aluminum trailer halfway passed; metallic surface of a distant lake, clouds and light moving into sunset formation. The poems within take the reader on as fine a set of journeys as can be fitted between an opening and final line. Airstream seems to defy the laws of physics – like Dr. Who’s Tardis, the poems in this book are bigger on the inside than one would guess from their modest physical proportions.

The book is divided into three sections - with, tellingly, geographic names. The first, “Finisterre,” is filled primarily with poems about quests. These are propelled by the varied personal motivations or exigencies that send individuals out to visit – or settle upon – various lands’ ends.

We meet Mr. Peterson, of Field Guide fame, for whom, “there’d be too many/ questions for an old man/ with a suitcase full of flowers….” The Lichen Lovers, we learn,
…met with blank stares mostly
            as we crisscrossed America
looking for clean air.
            You corrected book text on your
            sick bed as we reminisced
            about tundra—how I shot the lichen
            through a cloud of mosquitoes
            while you beat the air with a glove—

St. Kilda Sunday makes reference to a Scottish island so remote that, when it was ultimately evacuated in 1930, its inhabitants reportedly did not know that Queen Victoria had died. Its narrator muses that Jesus “seems kind/ although he forbids us/ to tend our animals/ on Sunday….” It’s a poem that measures the distance between the pre-Christian past and its transition to the age following it. Similarly, The Elders Lament describes a world “[a]fter the monks arrived,” where

[t]he elders grew silent, fearing in their hearts that no-one
would carve the stones that tether the sky to the land,
or burnish mirrors where people see their faces in the stars.

One truly breathtaking poem is Lammermore, with its dazzling compression of time and distance. It tells a three-generation family story between lines of conversation with a neighborhood grocer who happens to be an opera fan:
            Tony’s butcher shop is pristine—jars of tomato paste
            Along a shelf, jaunty cans of Pastene, the whole place
            Painted red and white to go with the meat. A sign in magic
            Marker on the cash register says bacalao $8.99 a pound.
            I ask him how to cook it.  When it comes out I’m from
Scotland he hands me a CD of Lucia de Lammermoor,
A picture of Italian men in kilts on stage at La Scala….

For me to reveal any more of this tale’s details and digressions would require a spoiler alert.

The second section, “The Continent and the Levant,” offers a mixed assortment of meditations: on paintings and artists; on art historians (like the one in The Tempest, “listing to one side
like a monument about/to topple, his expression blissful,”); poets, and other characters; some of whom have perhaps stepped out of paintings. The Baptist, the eponymous John, roasts locusts “on a makeshift hearth/ and hastily/ getting wings in his teeth—“The Shepherds,” one realizes, are those drawn to the nativity of Jesus, seen from Mary’s point of view: “crude and toothless. They stank/ and hoarded cheese in their pockets….”

Behind these schemes, there are also places, so full of personality that they asset themselves off the page, and into timelessness. In Hacksilber, one such location reveals its magic, both hidden and revealed:

            She brought all her suitors there
            to see if they went with the scenery – the castle,
            a river, the valley where the swan sleeps…

            They ran on it as children in their cable sweaters
            and once a man looked out from a tower
            to which there was no staircase….

There is also National Library of Scotland, a poem so rich in detail and side observations that its perfect arc of narrative seems to encompass an entire world:

            We could have guessed the size of it because
            George IV Bridge is actually a bridge, and you can peek
over the edge beside Baumeisters, where Escher-like
eighteenth century facades recede down to the Canongate
and you can gauge the fathoms of the NLS….

“Eastern Seaboard,” the third and last section, might seem to bring us to more familiar territory. We find it, too, however, to be riddled with mystery and surprise. Simply getting ice cream at the Dari-Joy becomes a rather gothic adventure, where there are “many, many enormous black flies, mutant neon-eating flies, all over the plate glass window which/ reflects our mint chocolate chip with rainbow sprinkles….”

In Creatures and Beasts, we watch vicariously with the narrator, who observes that:

            It was a lean time, month of the hunger moon
the world run out of food, only a carcass from
            beneath the snow to be picked clean. The grass
            was flat and brown, wobbly with water, the hill
            a jelly, turned out from the mold too soon. First
            a turkey vulture came unfurling the black curtain
            of its wings like a Victorian photographer….

Even in the settled places here, there is constant movement: in Indigo Bunting, where an old man is distracted from his woes and injury: “He came into the house full of wonder and asked/could it be that he had seen an all-over blue bird.” In Fireflies, a hospital patient sees these insects for the first time:

            Flashing semaphore in the last light.
            You’re transfixed, can’t make sense of
            what you’re seeing, having no experience….

Girls.Birds  presents us with an unpromising scenario:

            I tell the delinquent girls anyway, about the warblers….
            They listen to me and talk through tongue studs,
            their lycra abdomens bulge….

Yet the description of long migrations, nests In spruce forests, and “damp leaves, yellow and pointed and tropical” pierces the feigned boredom of even this audience: “The girls smoke/ hastily, for they are defenseless against this information/ and they never suspected the world was surrounded by wings.”

If your world could use some wings, pick up a copy of Airstream, and glide away on revelations and delight.

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