In 2014, Debra Kang Dean released Fugitive Blues, a chapbook that won the Moon City Press Blue Moon Chapbook Contest. The contest itself was short-lived, but I think this lovely little book deserves a long life.
In her endorsement of the book, poet Sarah Freligh writes that Dean’s poems “are at once small and large, honoring the ordinary even as they consider the ontological.” This is the most apt description I can think of for Dean’s work. Each of her poems can consume my attention for a long time—physically small, but very dense and philosophical. A small book of her work is more fulfilling than the full-length collections of many other poets.
The chapbook leads off with “Punchbowl,” set in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Punchbowl Crater, Honolulu. It’s a setting that has meaning for Dean:
On the slopes
of this crater, I saw the after-effect of slaughter
on a small scale—some mongoose or stray
had found its way into my brother’s pigeon coop
and scattered the flock that never came back.
Dean writes of this land as her homestead.
The inexorable law of bodies
tells us no two can occupy the same space.
Some must leave that others might live. Go back
where you came from. But there’s no there there
to return to. Tonight I have climbed from my father’s house
up over the rim and descended into the crater to lie,
sober, among the dead.
There is a lot of history in the book, including capital-H history, like this poem, which happens at the site of Ernie Pyle’s grave.
But there is also natural history, and there’s astronomy, which is entirely beyond the purview of history, and there’s nature study, as in “Ode to the Brown-Headed Cowbird.”
Brood parasite of those passerines,
with your leatherlike hood,
your iridescent black body,
neither the plagiarist of the aviary nor
the sequined harlequins are as reviled
by lovers of songbirds as you are.
This is how she introduces the cowbird—with vivid description that Dean then follows up with a very tender look into the birds’ lives:
Forty eggs will your mate lay
each in a different nest—warbler’s,
red-winged blackbird’s, junco’s …
If not turned out or pecked open,
they will hatch offspring
already skilled in begging.
With Dean’s loving attention, the bird takes on a larger presence, and it’s hard not to anthropomorphize its story.
Another bird poem I like quite a bit, “Song,” closes out this fine collection, and beautifully:
not yellow leaves—four
into the trees—a blur,
black-laced raw color
I was thunked, word-stirred:
Sunlight, sunlight, bird.
If you can get your hands on this rare and beautiful book, I encourage it.