At heart, Nicole Walker is a poet. I knew this as soon as I read five pages of her memoir, Quench Your Thirst With Salt. I knew this way before I read her bio note and discovered that yes, Walker, had many poetry publications. I knew this as soon as this first paragraph popped out at me: "The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete. Swimming up the Columbia teaches her a lesson about progress. Even before the dam, the waterfalls would have battered her forefathers. The rocks would have walloped a punch, broken the skin, bruised the flesh."
And so starts Walker's Quench Your Thirst With Salt, a memoir. More specifically, however, this book is a collection of lyrical essays that explore her life growing up in the state of Utah. Every chapter can be read (and perhaps, should be read) as an individual essay. For instance, one chapter titled "Filtered Water" focuses on the life of the water we use while juxtaposing this life with the author's own life, describing what she knows and doesn't know about her own family history. In another chapter, she introduces the reader to her father's alcoholism through discussions of the term "superfluidity" and in another chapter she describes her relationship with her own body when she has to have surgery at a young age. While most of the book focuses on her life in Utah, other chapters venture outside of the state including Nevada, Oregon and Minnesota, all the while aspects of the natural world with her own life.
Readers will find that Walker's book is more of an episodic exploration of her life rather than a straight linear narrative. We don't necessarily find clear beginnings or clear endings; instead, we read thoughtful insights about family relationships and their correlations to the world around us. And, of course, it's easy to get lost (blissfully, so) in the poetic language of Walker's landscapes, whether they are manmade or natural.
You can read more about Quench Your Thirst With Salt on Nicole Walker's homepage or the website of Zone Three Press.
An American Rust Belt City would hardly seem to be the location where a tale of magical realism would take place, but Rochelle Hurt, in her first collection of poetry, The Rusted City, navigates a broken and battered world through elements of fantasy and characters who seemed to have stepped out of a blue-collar fairy tale.
In The Rusted City we are introduced to a family of four whose names are never given and are only described as the smallest sister, the oldest sister, the quiet mother, and the favorite father. Most of this novel-in-verse collection is told from the perspective of the smallest sister who views the world around her in wonderment, although most of what she sees is coated in rust. For instance, in the opening poem, "The Old Mill" she explains that she knows birds are living in an abandoned mill: "The birds are there, eating the rust from the wings." Certainly, it seems as if these birds are acting as phoenix symbols -- rising from rust as if they are rising from the destruction of fire and ashes.
Although we don't always necessarily see the characters rising from their rusty world, we do see them as hopeful survivors that seem to make the best of their situations. In "The Smallest Sister Decides to Make Herself Red" we see a child who wants to make herself attractive by stringing "corroded washes into a necklace" and coloring her lips with "sanguine river water." In another poem, "The Oldest Sister Smashes Cans" this same sister learns the art of destruction from her sibling: "Each can lets out a wheeze as it folds into itself, a burst of breath/ that whooshes the rust-laced pollen on the ground." While many of the poems do feature the smallest sister and her relationship with other characters and the world around her, some let other people speak including poems where the quiet wife takes center stage. For instance, in "Wife Song," the speaker likens her love to "impatient decay" while in the two sentence poem "The Quiet Mother Moves," that acts almost like an interlude to the collection, we understand this figure that walks "like breath, and an out of the house. Like a lung, the house empties and fills."
Yes, we get a strong sense of how the characters are navigating this world of debris, but perhaps the most interesting section of this collection is where the older sister relays the history of their hometown. In the poem, "In the Century of Lunch Pails" she explains that the world was once filled with "the grown and whistle of liquid/aluminum, churning the river to a radium loam" and "coins/inside all the hollowed-out fathers as they walked." This world of busy factory activity ends, however, and is followed by the sullen stillness of unemployment described in "In the Century of Silence" when "the plants closed, no/exclamations were heard,/but the city opened with the pink/of a thousand gapemouths, all/of its citizens miming themselves."
Navigating the American Rust Belt through poetry is tricky -- it's easy to fall into clichés and nostalgia. But Hurt avoids all the rusty overwrought drama and creates a new world from the old by using rust as more than corrosion and damage. In her lyrical poems, she transforms a world that is familiar debris to a place that is beautiful and hopeful.
For more information about The Rusted City, visit Rochelle Hurt's website. The Rusted City is part of White Pine Press's Marie Alexander Poetry Series which highlights prose poetry. More can be found about this series here.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.