Book Review

Terry Blackhawk’s latest collection, One Less River, is a difficult book to read—not because the poems are overly ambitious or seek to add another post to our post-post-modern understanding of the world. The book is difficult to read because, except for a few instances where Blackhawk sets her imagination to play—the six poems in the “Overheard Among the Arthropods” sequence, for example, or the two-part “The Saddle: A Morphogenesis”—the poems speak to a truth we’re often inclined to elide, even at times to deny: that loss is as inevitable as the past is irrecoverable, that heartbreak and grief are experiences we’re able to only reconcile ourselves to and not overcome.

And yet, for all the poems’ gravity, One Less River hews to what we know from Milan Kundera as the unbearable lightness of being. Our sorrows and regrets are too much with us, Blackhawk admits, but they’re always rooted to our gladness and our joy, to the celebrations we commence as a way to prize memory free from memorialization. Because of this, the book reads as a poignant, beautifully written paean to what Heidegger has called the world’s worlding, as well as to that spirit of persistence that fuels our being-in-the-world. This is evident from the start. “The Door,” which is the first poem in the book, asks before all else, “Why is it lately closed to me?” The very next line begins in answer: “I will not complain.”

The question, of course, points to something having been lost, to the speaker having been cast out. The answer, though, and not insignificantly, points away from this trauma toward greater agency and a way forward. Yes, upon a first reading one could be forgiven for viewing the speaker’s reply as a capitulation—which we might find confirmed when the speaker admits to being “too shy” to attend “a dance . . . the other night.” But as with Dickinson—and to a certain extent Whitman, as when he advocates for leaning and loafing—Blackhawk marshals a quietism that belies any such reading. The word “gracefully” gives us our cue. Following directly upon the line “I will not complain,” we read,

These grasses share the light.
They bend and catch the wind gracefully.

The nod to Whitman can hardly be overlooked here. It’s not just a matter of grasses appearing in the poem but also of the speaker’s rapt, even empathetic attention to the nonhuman world, from which she draws courage and because of which she experiences grace. This happens over and again throughout the book, as Blackhawk draws on her years of skilled bird-watching to emphasize what might otherwise be overlooked because of an untutored, or even in some cases an unwilling, attention. The grasses bend, clearly, but in so doing they “share the light” and “catch the wind,” actions that reveal a beatitude the speaker participates in when, in the final two lines, she shares that

A sauna’s slats, so fragrant, wrap me now.
I’ve crawled into a barrel on the hill.

If “The Door” and other poems like it in the collection were meant to be read as being about exclusion and a loss of autonomy, these lines would present us with a dilemma, as they convey a sense of pleasure and fulfilment, of peace and security that dismisses any regret at having not gone “to the perfumery”—here again Whitman: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes . . .”—or to the dance. In this womb-like sanctuary, the speaker is able to express her vulnerability and claim her strength.

And it’s from this place of bravery—dare we call it by its other name: sincerity?—that the rest of the poems are presented, which is Blackhawk’s deftest touch, because without the groundedness she conveys here, the sense of being at peace, the rest of the collection would appear too calculated in its dolor, too freighted with sentimentality, too righteous in its indignation.

One Less River achieves what only the most thoughtfully constructed collections do: it creates a sequence—in this case across four parts—that enriches and amplifies the individual poems. Blackhawk uses “The Door” to introduce the reader to the book’s arc, which invokes the American Renaissance to examine our complicated relationship to a world whose wonders we’re as guilty of blighting as we are of heralding and preserving.

Poems like “The Extinct Fresh Water Mussels of the Detroit River,” “The Ivory Gull Under the Bridge Over the Flint River,” and the exquisite five-part crown “And Somewhere a River” exemplify this. Weaving together as they do the urban and the pastoral, the contemporary and the historical, the political and the personal—not, we should note, unlike Whitman at his brashest and most expansive—these and other poems showcase how our parsing of the nonhuman world often, and of necessity, leads to an indictment of our collective irresponsibility, as well as to a critique of our hubris in thinking we could ever control what we shiftlessly call “nature,” hoping to create a space for ourselves apart from the world from which we can exercise privilege and dominion. We see this at work in the final stanza of “The Ivory Gull Under the Bridge Over the Flint River”:

Sibley: “the one pure white gull, plumage
Dazzlingly white, often very tame.
Voice, a mewing, high whistle strongly
descending.” Am I wrong to think of
Eurydice at Hades’s throne, bird
As halcyon respite? Great monsters
are lying low. In vain the buzzard
houses herself with the sky. Never mind
the sickened children of the town.

And here, in the fourth part of “And Somewhere a River”:

Your photograph

Will go on forever, drooping,
But then oddly resuming its position
In the abandoned car park
Under matted leaves and stems.

In both cases, particularly in the former, Blackhawk uses form to overload the poem’s semantic content (form is content, as Samuel Beckett has claimed), bolding what both poems say by leveraging how they say it. Although Blackhawk does this in different ways throughout the book, I want to focus here on what James Longenbach has referred to as line endings (as opposed to line breaks—and these two excerpts highlight why the distinction is important, as these lines don’t break so much as they arrive to a tipping point determined in each case by the upper limit of additional meaning each line can bear. Did I say earlier that the poems weren’t ambitious? Thank goodness I remembered to include that qualifying adverb . . .).

The following lines from “The Ivory Gull Under the Bridge Over the Flint River” demonstrate what I mean: “Dazzlingly white, often very tame,” “As halcyon respite? Great monsters,” “houses herself with the sky. Never mind.” After the excitement of our first reading, once we’ve given ourselves permission to start teasing at how the poem has been constructed and how it works, we see that the semantic units these lines create—independent of the clauses they’re joined to—produce an even greater torsion within the poem because of the way opposing images and ideas are made to collide over such a short span: dazzling—very tame; halcyon—monsters; and the entirety of the third example, houses herself with the sky—never mind.

In each case, the latter of the two ideas pushes back against or seeks to erase the former. This artfulness reinforces and amplifies the poem’s central concern, which hinges on its terminus:

. . . Great monsters
are lying low. In vain the buzzard
houses herself with the sky. Never mind
the sickened children of the town.

Dazzling? Our shame, certainly. Halcyon respite? Our monstrosity precludes it. The most exquisite flights of creative expression? What matter when children are dying because of systemic racism, neglect, and bigotry? It’s a harrowing poem made that much more harrowing by Blackhawk’s use of line and line endings to press the point of our failings onto the

. . . bleak
industrial stage my friend captured
on film . . .

And yet, as I’ve indicated before, the poems in One Less River don’t ask us to relinquish hope, nor do they seek to condemn us for our will to persevere, as poems such as “A Wedding on the Island,” “WW, Lounging,” “At Elmwood Cemetery: The Cherry Now,” and “Palms I Have Known” attest. Blackhawk is, I would like to emphasize, as tender in this collection as she is fierce and undaunted, as deeply committed to community building and cross-cultural awareness as she has been in her decades-long advocacy for poetry and the arts in our public schools and local communities. (See “Citizen Poet,” dedicated to Sekou Sundiata; “Tallahatchie,” dedicated to Emmett Till; and “The Woodcock” and “Grief, in Venice,” translated into Farsi by Soodabeh Saeidnia for examples.) The complexity she marshals with such seeming ease is on full display from “The Door” onward, and that complexity, whether at the level of form or semantics—or, invariably, both—makes One Less River a collection that rewards us over and again for joining its author in not turning away from the difficult truths we face in a world that goes on worlding even when we fail to heed the better angels of our nature.

About the Reviewer

Derek Pollard’s books include Till One Day the Sun Shall Shine More Brightly: The Poetry and Prose of Donald Revell (editor, University of Michigan Press), On the Verge of Something Bright and Good (Barrow Street Press), and Inconsequentia (BlazeVOX Books). He currently serves as Series Editor for the Poets on Poetry Series published by the University of Michigan Press.