Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, forthcoming 2010), and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, forthcoming 2010). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“I bought the mounted wolf for the back room because I thought it was fitting,” reads one brief, two sentence poem, “with all the goddamn fuss they’ve caused. Like a token.” Such vernacular fragments help issue the invitation to place that suffuses Micah Ling’s Sweetgrass, a small book speaking vast spaces and well-worn particulars, ranging across the rolling expanse of weather and focusing in on a tabletop in a freshly swept tool room. “Finger the sage grass,” says one poem, while another tells us to fill our “lungs with this air,” air like “new language...nectar-clean.” “Look at your shadow compared to the mountain’s,” still another poem instructs. “Hear the coyotes cry like sad harmonicas.” Ling’s Montana is a place “where sky = blue and land = green” and signs are posted declaring “Wilderness,” at once a lushly realized natural landscape and a human world rendered with loving attention to detail. “Mud flaps boast Big Sky Country, but this sky is bigger than that,” and the mud flaps matter in themselves, their wear, their declaration. Objects hold meaning, or at least the sense of it, the promise that they mirror the exterior: kids finger the jewel boxes of new albums and bears sniff at the edges of the places people dwell. Ling gives us a world of barbed wire, folded castration knives, “tears and milk”—a drama of “things said, and things not said,” under that ever-shifting sky, simultaneously a refuge and a threat.
Consider this crackling scene: “A caravan of beat-up pick-ups and creaking trailers stumbled through ash, popping pine limbs, and naked flames dancing to the wee hours. Main Boulder Road wore an overcoat of soot and char and all things fire, and the smell was too sweet, even for the black bears, who crave sap year-round.” Ling writes lines like well-cured jerky; lines to wedge down by your gums, to suck on, savor, and chew over for hours. “This is a lesson in tradition and region and routine,” Ling writes, ostensibly about 4-H but also, surely, about her own book, animated by the breath of nostalgia and the studied scent of place.
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