Review of The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets Edited by Heidi Hermanson, Liz Kay, Jen Lambert, and Sarah McKinstry Brown
Omaha: The Backwaters Press, 2013. $16.00. 224pgs
Reading The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets, one might be stumped to find a theme tying these eighty-seven poets together; art, farm living, weather, heartbreak, travel, childhood, motherhood, identity, womanhood, the body, poetry and language itself. Perhaps the collection's intent is realized via Marge Saiser's "Poem of Thanks / after Thomas Lux":
"Thank you, Whoever,
for these women I'm singing with.
Thank you for syllables
intoned. For the song, thank you, and for the feet
we stand on to sing it,
feet that move us around a circle we have
imagined. We break its imagined perimeter:
some step in, some step out..."
From these "Nebraska women poets whose experiences are not as tidy as the rows of corn and rolling plains that define much of our landscape…bent on breaking and mending your heart in the same breath," (xiii), many took on the dreaded cold climate and renowned landscape—some provocatively, some modestly.
Of the various issues of motherhood, womanhood, childhood, relationships, travel, nature, and philosophy, I selected a few prominent pieces that reference visual art (my personal favorite topic). Through these poems, the authors' diversity of perspective is gleamed as they look at the subject matter, the artist, the museum, the reflection in their own life, and more.
Susan Aizenberg interprets a piece by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916, born/raised in Indiana). The artwork, "Sunlight and Shadow" (1884), is on permanent view in Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum. Aizenberg playfully yet thoughtfully imagines the story of the pictured man and woman, with a keen sense of tragedy:
"And yet something eloquent and too human inheres
in their frozen gestures—the man's ruddy profile
and the litter of cigarettes at his feet
evidence of his impatience, something cruel
in the proprietary drape of his arm across
the chair back. And though she does not turn
to face him, we can see the woman is listening,
her one visible eye dull with sorrow, her mouth obscured
by the porcelain shell of her curved fist."
"In the Far Field" by Crystal Gibbons examines "The Hailstorm" by Thomas Hart Benton also in Joslyn's collection. Many Midwesterners are familiar with Benton (1889-1975, from Missouri), known for paintings of everyday people and scenes of life in the Midwest.
Gibbons' writing exudes the active anxiety of the painting's scenery with intense rhythm, pulling readers along with restless, querying verse:
"…there is not much else for him to do
in this wide open they call the heart-
land, this place in the middle
mid-adrift, absolutely middle,
the mid-land of nothing
but land, flat canvas to paint."
Lisa Roberts pursues Sheldon Museum of Art's "Betalo," by Eugene Speicher. Roberts writes of her obsessive visits to see the portrait of the dark-haired young woman through "Portrait Studies, Days 1 to 22"—each day is a different absorption of the piece's essence as she changes perspective, story, the world around her, and the artist. One stanza is of particular brilliance, exhibiting how art abets poetry and vice versa:
When I arrive today, the abstract background
is on the move. Green shadow infects
your white blouse. The upright
scythe swings. Pink oil slick
oozes close, from the left.
The blood floor rises."
With these ardent examinations of art by renowned male artists, I wondered if any would examine art by a woman?
In"Artifact," Marjorie walks among "beaded moccasins and arrowheads," thinking "about women:"
into boiling water,
corn or hope or milk,
a mother opening her garment
so a baby can suck his fill,
his head between the warmth of her body
and the skin of the deerskin dress."
Saiser relates this to her present day, caring for her mother in a hospital room, calling to the relentless work of women, as echoed in the artwork.
Susan Utley writes emotively of the intersection of art and life as well in "You Drew a Picture of Us," tracing a relationship via a picture, a poem, painted portraits, a story, and a photograph, from "two young lovers" who "critique the lines and call it art;" ending forlornly:
"you burned my writing in the trash
i pulled your artwork from the wall
new strangers point up to the sky
as they watch your paintings fall"
Laura Madeline Wiseman remembers an anonymous still-life, perhaps from her childhood home or a museum visit in her past. Wherever she may have seen it, the sentiment stayed as she describes in narrative detail her realization that what she remembers differs from what is:
"Across the seat rests a white apron trimmed in lace.
One tie loops around the chair leg, no longer bound
around her hips. The apron holds a pail of sun-
warmed peaches. One peach has fallen out.
A moment ago she removed the apron and fled
the fruit from this lonely room. Why do I want her
not to return, but to continue to wherever she's going
into the world, in the window, that none of us can see?"
We see both art and poetry through our perspectives, which are vast and ever changing. Indeed, such a feeling of bursting forth as Wiseman writes, is embodied in this entire collection. Though Nebraska may tether these writers, nothing much more binds them than their dedicated ability to contemplate their diverse environs. For the small group examined, there are so many stellar pieces such as AJ Pearson-VanderBroek's "It's Just a Phase" grabbing readers by collar with unabashed philosophically questioning prose, and the sweet subtle sensuality of Ciara N. McCormack's "Let's Pretend You're Touching Me," and looking beyond the rain to the graying soul in Megan Gannon's effortless, touching "Weather."
The main scourge is the dull cover, a grayscale aging theatre sign with text: "Liquor / Worms / Movies." The image itself perhaps interesting, but on the cover of such a rich, intense and alive collection, baffles. Perhaps it's meant to be an irony for the archetypal Nebraska farm, cornfields or flowery feminine essence, which some of the writing employs. In effect, "don't judge a book by its cover," and thankfully, art isn't the point here. "The Untidy Season," necessarily affirms the plethora of fierce, innovative women—notably, here, the writers—outside the big publishing Mecca's—some with the grain, others against—but altogether for us to witness.
You can purchase The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets here.
Sally Deskins is an artist and writer. Deeply inspired by contemporary artist, Wanda Ewing's, work challenging society's definitions of femininity, Deskins' art explores womanhood and motherhood. Her art and writing have been shown/published locally and nationally. She is founding editor of LES FEMMES FOLLES. She has curated and produced many multi-media arts events and published three LES FEMMES FOLLES anthologies of art, poetry and interview excerpts. Her latest writing can also be found in Galatea Resurrects, Prick of the Spindle, Her Kind, Cactus Heart Literary Magazine, Bookslut, Bitch and Gently Read Literature. Her first illustrated book, Intimates & Fools, with poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, came out in January 2014. Sally lives in West Virginia with her husband and two children.