I read a very quiet book today—Grayling, by Jenifer Browne Lawrence (Perugia Press, 2015).
It occurs to me that it takes a great deal of discipline to write a book this contemplative, and this subtle. I was captivated from the start—it was one of those books that I had to devour in a sitting—but it worked its effect in just the way the most delicate snow starts as a dusting and keeps accumulating, until everything is covered and made silent.
The blurbs on the back cover see things similarly. Erin Belieu characterizes Lawrence’s voice as “pulled tight by oppositions,” and showcasing the poet’s discipline, precision, and craft. Likewise, Sarah Vap writes that readers should “expect to descend slowly.” This exactly matched my reading experience.
There is much beauty in the work, which features close observation of nature and the lived-in world. Most reflections are set in the Pacific Northwest, where Lawrence lives.
The very first poem, “What Her Father Cast,” is a beautiful introduction to the project:
He said stand on your own
two feet and her shadow
swam into a fish
spooled from her reel
at the speed of grayling
He spoke the river’s name
Tonsina shade of a salmon’s breath
flaring in the grizzly’s mouth
This passage makes it clear: The collection is best taken in slowly so that the images can unspool in their time. I was immediately smitten with the poet’s description of the word “Tonsina,” and after I uncorked it in my initially reading, I paused to let it breathe.
I am also a reader who appreciates knowing the names of things. Frankly, I had never heard of a grayling, the word that makes up the collection’s title, but it’s a type of fish, also mentioned in this first piece: “her shadow / swam into a fish / spooled from her reel / at the speed of grayling.” I like how the unfamiliar word defamiliarizes me to “gray,” and alerts me to a possible noun or participial form of it. That’s part of the slowing process. In some ways reading Lawrence is like walking through deep, blowing sand. It takes just a moment to set your footing.
What I enjoy most about the collection is Lawrence’s attention to scene—always precise, as in her poem “Sirius”:
Switched off the light to watch the stars.
In the morning, a crescent
smudge where my cheek pressed the windows.
Red-shafted flicker knocks on the roof.
It won’t come in. The furnace ticks
an announcement: here it comes
with heat to make me happy. […]
A mouse perched beside the fireplace all night,
its droppings like the seeds of new stars.
Informing Lawrence’s sense of scene is her sense of what’s missing from the scene, as witnessed in that cheek smudge above, and the mouse droppings—both evidence of something that was there and is gone.
I’ll conclude here with another palimpsest of Lawrence’s—so beautifully evocative of scene and of the presence of absence:
My sister ironed her dress
on a bath towel laid over the walnut table.
Heat lifted the varnish and shaped
a milk cloud of a missing girl.
An interview with Jenifer Browne Lawrence …
What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
The only thing I remember wanting to be when I was very young was a tree. Trees have always held me fascinated. At four, I climbed to the top of a giant redwood tree, coaxed down safely by the promise of chocolate chip cookies. At fourteen, I spent an entire summer sitting in a fir tree, reading book after book. At forty, I climbed a locally famous madrone, with a notebook in my pocket, feeling self-conscious but absurdly pleased with myself.
What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
The best word in this collection is life. The word does not appear in Grayling, but the poems are filled with it in every form: Animal, vegetable, and mineral. Birth, death, grief, and desire. Blood, roots, and silt.
Describe your worst poetic habit.
I can’t confess my worst poetic habit. But my second-worst poetic habit is procrastination. I’ll set down my notebook in favor of almost any task—suddenly cleaning the garage is more critical than writing a poem, it seems. When I finally push aside all the distractions and write, there is nothing more amazing and satisfying.
It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about _____:
It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about pickup trucks. Our rural and suburban landscapes are filled with trucks, each of which holds an entire world. What happened on the bench seat of that ’73 Chevy half-ton, and what bounced out of the back when the truck hit a pothole on the road to Mount St. Helens? Gearshifts and jumpstarts and tire irons—generations grew up riding in a pickup—in the cab, or in the steel beds that transported dogs and kids and groceries and fishing gear. Farmers, hunters, and adolescents. Dreamers and warriors and lovers and liars. An anthology for the 98 percent. Hold on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
It’s your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry.
Jenifer Browne Lawrence was a poet whose line was in the water.
Jenifer Browne Lawrence’s first book of poems is One Hundred Steps from Shore. Her awards include the Orlando Poetry Prize, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Potomac Review Poetry Prize, and a Washington State Artist Trust GAP Grant. Her work appears in Los Angeles Review, Narrative, North American Review, Rattle, and elsewhere. She lives in a small seaside community on Puget Sound, where she works as a civil engineering technician and edits Crab Creek Review.
Editor's note: This is the Jan. 5 installment of Poem366 (#5 out of 366 entries this year). If you are a poet or publisher who would like for me to consider a title, I am happy to accept physical copies (printouts are fine) of recent books. At this time I'm considering only full-length collections published by established presses (no self-published work). Feel free to mail a copy to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804.