SPRING 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 3
In CarolAnn Russell's poems of cars, dates, relatives, youth and nostalgia, a complicated America emerges that is filled with irrepressible energy. Russell, an adopted Ojibwa, has a way of living inside her words that tells you she's giddy with life and what she has found in it. Her intensity is hard to ignore.
While Silver Dollar feels at times somewhat random, certain poems make heady impressions. Russell is particularly intrigued by body images; everything she sees has a physical presence. In a pulsing, lusty poem called "Carnival," she opens with the line, "Summer opens her velour box," and by the end of the night, the "black sky lifts its skirt/to flash/star-studded thighs."
Russell is at her best when passionate, as in "Changing Color in America," which pounds with savvy and anger: "Today I feel at home and am hereby notifying/all friends, family, and enemies/that I am changing color."
Taken individually, the poems are rich with feast and flesh, the poet delighting in all stages of sexuality and its perils, in wise talk from older women, in cocktail bars and missed promises. She has a gift for trenchant observation, as in "Kindred Fireworks," a long poem in which she beautifully paints the hot day of a local Fourth of July parade with its "thunk/and crack of fireworks splitting the dark, torn/prom dresses splayed across the sky." Certain images, however, are diluted by repetition, such as wings and the silver dollar of the title that has the habit of a bad penny.
Her love and scorn for this land combust in short, hot bursts. "Common Wealth," the collection's final poem, haunts the reader as a dirge. "This land, this longing/cannot be stolen/nor pried loose and sold/like missing silver/dollars along the bar."
The voice is sharp and direct, the reader compelled to pay attention and to feel Russell's vigor. Her raw energy is admirable.
The Rocky Mountains sing spring songs and surge with summer rhyme, this we know. And with Carl Schreier's exhaustive field guide in hand, we also learn the rhapsodic poetry blooming around us in the common names of the indigenous wildflowers.
With this book as a guide, we can hike the hills, crying out a Whitman-like exultation. "O purple saxifrage! O Lanceleaved stonecrop! You, rosy pussytoes and you, leopard lily! The crested tongue penstemon and here: the many-flowered stickseed and rabbit-foot crazyweed. Blazing start and fireweed, fairy slipper and prairie smoke. O showy aster!"
Schreier gives us a dictionary for beauty, sets order to nature's chaos. And inadvertently tells a good story of American survival and history with his "facts and uses" section on each flower.
Rub your palm with western meadowrue and saliva, and you can make a woman fall in love with you just by shaking her hand. Invite her for lunch and slip watercress (a known aphrodisiac) into her salad. If she punches you in the eye, apply trillium root to reduce the swelling.
If she retaliates by setting rats free in your house, you could kill them with the edible valerian root. Or you might come together some stormy night with cures for each other's earaches (oil of flannel mullein), unite (keep the watercress handy), have a baby and treat its colic with curlycup gumweed.
This is the life of flowers, roots and vegetation made explicit in Schreier's Field Guide to Wildflowers of the Rocky Mountains. Sing, heavenly mule's-ears!
In the first quick sentence of The Falling Boy, Mark Singer marries Olivia Stavros. By the end of this paragraph, he's at work on a construction site, building in the post-World War II boom. Mark's construction work is a metaphor for the novel itself. As David Long carefully builds his story, each beam and plank bear weight; the larger shape does not emerge until the frame has at last been filled in. First, says Long, the reader must know each nail.
That sure and sharp economy with which Long dispatches the wedding is a sign: in his lush first novel, he is concerned with moments of being, the threads that stitch events together. With tiny details like a door swinging on its hinges, a lunch box, a shaft of streetlight, Long gives gorgeous and intimate voices to the unconscious silences. When Mark goes to church, he is "moved by the rolling mumble of voices, the stonework vaulting overhead, the grandeur and confidence. Yet none of it conferred the gift of faith, made of him a believer. He had to, he guessed, come down on the side of things visible."
Masterful in its gauzy, golden telling, The Falling Boy portrays a family from the outside in. Long employs quiet detail to serve epic themes and reaches out to grasp a culture in a manner reminiscent of Robert Penn Warren and John Steinbeck. He understands how, in Montana, the town, the weather and the light are all elements that unite these people and tell their stories. His northern Montana town of Sperry swells, vibrates and dries with time, the seasons cut their notches in the years and are very much a part of how these people live.
Mark Singer marries one of four lively Greek sisters and finds himself, as years go by, in an affair with another. The novel opens with him in 1952, but it does not belong to Mark¬twenty-two, in love, hesitant. The book glides along among Mark, the sisters and their father until the connections between them emerge. In three sections that span nine years, one man's young life begins as a larger era ends, and that shared rise and decline is haunting¬a sense of melancholy shimmering at the edge of the page.
Like Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, Long makes us see what we aren't used to looking at. A silent moment in Mark and Olivia's marriage bristles with feeling, capturing how each person holds a mystery and is a mystery to the other. He narrates with a solemn grace that is shockingly beautiful for capturing the simplest things: "At noon Mark slides down against a stud wall and hauls his lunch box into his lap, enjoying as he always does its gravity the moment before he cracks it open." The lunch box's familiarity gives way to something unexpected, and the novel moves this way too, leading us into an unknown world even as Long charts the familiar.
The Falling Boy illustrates the undisturbed, ordinary life, then seizes on its sudden, generous shifts, as Long, like a conjurer, balances our attention deftly until he decides we should fall.
The following is from Headwaters, a new anthology of stories, poems and essays by forty-nine Montana writers, compiled by Annick Smith. The book includes a number of alumni¬rancher Ralph Beer, novelist Deirdre McNamer, tree surgeon Fred Haefele and cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski. Sponsored by Missoula literary center Hellgate Writers and funded by an anonymous donor, the book celebrates Montana's rivers, lakes and forests in response to the state's recent mining controversies. Three thousand copies of the book were distributed throughout the state free of charge.
Along the Blackfoot (an excerpt) by Patricia Goedicke
At 9 Mile Prairie, on the banks
of the calm Blackfoot, clear
ambling fish concourse
of gray, rust, bottle green,
the pines stood around above us
until we were water-borne, the lift
under the buttocks like a hand, airy
as clouds holding up the plane
where you will sit tomorrow, flying
to your mother's bedside and then back
once more to this quiet