Reviewed By Kelly Weber
- Wesleyan University Press (2018)
- 90 pages
In the closing line of Kerri Webster’s prose poem “One Eye Dilated,” the speaker states, “It has taken me forever to be obedient to the beautiful, rather than the easy, things.” An obedience to the difficulties of beauty—to shot swans, to hummingbird skulls, to the animal of the body—feels like the driving ethos of Webster’s gorgeous new collection The Trailhead. It’s a book that places us at the opening to wilderness. Deeply embodied, with female speakers and an ecopoetic consciousness, The Trailhead feels expansive in its formal variety and its attentiveness to both environment and agency. Webster’s pages are fields big enough to venture forth into.
Much of that beauty comes through the way the poems intertwine ecology with female autonomy and power. Opening with the line “All winter she’s been growing more powerful” in the first poem, “Hermeneutics,” the book establishes and builds a sense of female agency that is rendered certain in its uncertainty—grounded and self-assured in the female body, yet obedient first and foremost to the difficult beauty of the world and its many small violences. In the deeply compelling, prose-sectional poem “Hulls Gulch,” the speaker says, “I will sit by the trail until my head stops hurting. I will try not to be afraid.” To speak with power while also surrendering one’s self to trail and wilderness is a difficult line to navigate, yet Webster’s poems manage it with play and musicality: “The aspens clone themselves. I take / my clothes off. The cormorants come / back . . . ” the speaker of “Corpse Flower” says. Sounds transform and transform again, until the body and the natural world and their agentive acts merge with mystery and precision.
Formally, The Trailhead explores this ecological consciousness through poems that move expertly back and forth between prose and lineated forms. Each piece feels like it offers a kind of space and breath different from the poem before it, as though part of the speaker’s power is enacted in moving between line and sentence. Prose poem sequences like “Hulls Gulch” offer a haibun-like attentiveness to the natural world where sentence and accumulated detail build energy within the boundaries drawn by the form, and other prose poems like “Conversion Narrative” read almost like lyric essays with white space between riveting sentences. Lineated poems like “Swan / Not Swan,” meanwhile, find great energy in their juxtaposition of lines without any stanza breaks. The movement is fluid and deft, and Webster’s book illustrates just how adept she is at writing sharp poems that extend over several pages. “We turn our violence into shapes—” the speaker of “Swan / Not Swan” says, and if that’s true, then The Trailhead offers a sequence of shapes made through careful attention.
And such violences there are. The speaker of “Hill Walk” calls on us to “poison all the honeybees” in its opening line, for example, and over and over again, the poems draw our attention back to such topics as solastalgia and animals killed by boys. Obedience to beauty, The Trailhead suggests, demands that we take these damages in as part of existing in the world. Like the image captured in the title of “One Eye Dilated,” we must, perhaps, have one eye that is more open than the other to the burning light of the world, one eye to take in more, even if the other eye must be focused on regulating such light and image to move through that world. To see fully in the time of the Anthropocene is to, like the prophetess in “Of Deborah,” see a future of drought and war. In “Solastalgia,” the speaker uses mythology to explore the loss of language to describe the world and the failures of divination to change such a fate:
Some languages specialize in excoriation, or
squid metaphors, or
pre-mourning. In her bones
she knew the end of things, knew
the body’s immolation
and all the lovers grown old, sorrow
terraforming into mythos
even as we stand here.
The body knows, can achieve this knowledge through mythic journeys and discipline, but there’s a kind of inevitable transformation into an unrecognizable world, in part through the narrating of such violence into a mythology to be consumed instead of heeded. Webster navigates such delicate language and tonal work throughout these poems, using figures like Deborah and Tiresias (once transformed into a woman) to navigate the particular ways that female bodies register such sight and violence.
The Trailhead is, thus, a book we need right now. Its language play and sharp imagery work in service to a larger ethos of living in a dying world as an attentive body, of submitting to and articulating its visions even as male figures do not listen or do not respond. With her distinctive voice and presence on the page, Webster asks us to similarly be obedient to the beauty of her poems. It is not always easy; The Trailhead asks us to work, to question what we have seen and the narrating voice at work that feels, at times, deceptively conversational. Yet as Webster suggests, this is the worthiest work. This is the vision we must heed. This is the voice we must listen to, female and strong and perceptive.
Kelly Weber is the author of the chapbook All My Valentine’s Days Are Weird from Pseudo Poseur Press, and her poems and essays have appeared in Upstreet, the Midwest Quarterly, Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for the AWP Intro Journal Award, and she has served as an artist-in-residence at Cedar Point Biological Station. She is currently an MFA candidate at Colorado State University.