Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
By Lauret Savoy
240 pages, Counterpoint Press, 2015
Review by Julia Bouwsma
Lauret Savoy’s extraordinary collection of interlocking essays, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint, 2015), begins as a singular and gnawing obsession: “to trace what has marked me.” Stirred by the “sharp-felt absence” that came from growing up “in a family with little spoken memory,” Savoy, a professor of geology and environmental studies, embarks down a winding path that “traverses many forms of memory and silence, of a people as well as a single person.” Thus Trace—an expedition rooted in an intimate knowledge of sand and stone, those present-day fragments of Earth’s ancient memory, and the conviction that “the American land preceded hate”—spans time, cultures, and thousands of miles. It is an exploration that follows the footprints of ancestors—European colonists, free and enslaved Africans, Indigenous peoples—some of their marks fossilized by traditionally accepted histories, others largely eroded and erased by personal and collective silences. The path is necessarily nonlinear, but Savoy is a deft and intrepid navigator. With an arsenal of maps at her side, she leads us through a maze of changing place-names, contested lands, and plundered natural resources, through forced migrations and wrenching displacements. From California to a confluence of rivers in Oklahoma, from the U.S.-Mexico border to the slave-stalls of our nation’s pre-Civil-War capital, from a South Carolina planation to a burying ground in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Savoy walks the spine of the American landscape, sifting the searing fragments of personal, environmental, and cultural histories.
The first steps of Trace’s monumental journey take place in New England in “Prologue: Thoughts on a Frozen Pond.” Here, the reader accompanies Savoy “through the dark heart of forests,” examining the landscape for evidence “of how memory of any form becomes inscribed in the land.” Here, we find ourselves surrounded by indications of the past, both recent and remote. We are shown how these markers have become the very land itself: the rocky glacial deposits left by the last ice-age, the stone walls built two centuries ago to border fields now given back to trees, the layers of seasonal detritus and air bubbles embedded within the ice beneath our feet. As Savoy points out, it is easy to get lost in such a timeless landscape, to feel trapped by the smallness and uselessness of one’s body in the face of history: “I cannot touch a leaf encased in ice—nor can I feel the calloused hands that stacked these walls. Yet we make our lives among relics and ruins of former times, former worlds. Each of us is, too, a landscape inscribed by memory and loss.” And so the body—the vessel in which we carry our individual and fragmented histories—becomes inseparable from the land on which it stands. The metaphor begins as a small comfort perhaps, but Savoy scrapes the snow back and rearranges the stones just so until they reveal something larger than metaphor: an entry point. She invites us to follow her inside. “Come with me,” she entreats. “We may find what home lies in re-membering—in piecing together the fragments left—and in reconciling what it means to inhabit terrains of memory, and to be one.”
This making of a physical home within metaphor is characteristic of Savoy’s process. Her work frequently seems to situate itself within multiple planes simultaneously: in the land of memory both personal and archival, in the topography and layers of the earth, and in the realm of language. Whether lifting a pebble from the beach at Madeline Island (off the coast of Lake Superior) to consider the geologic story it holds, or tracing the often names of places on a map to examine the ways in which “Indigenous sounds twisted on European, then Anglo-American tongues,” nothing is exactly what it first seems. Nothing is easy. Every relic is a text to be read, examined from new angles, reimagined in its connection with the self. There is always another story to be told. Stippled with elemental questions that echo across the shared and eroded landscape of our individual and cultural narratives (“From what do we take our origin? From blood? ...From incised memories?” “Does your child mind haunt you too?” “How is the past remembered and told?” “Who owns memory?”), Trace is a many-layered conversation, conducted simultaneously between author and reader, between the author and her personal history, between personal history and cultural history, between cultural history and geologic history, between the identities of people and the identities of their ecosystems, between the landscape of the body and the landscape of the earth. Each conversation answers, asks, and tells again—rising, falling, and resurfacing with a seismic cadence. “Tell me a story,” writes Savoy in what is both the opening and the closing refrain of “What’s in a Name,” “and I’ll give you one in return.”
Of course, the narrative complexity of Trace is no stylistic accident. Rather, it is a philosophy born of survival mechanism, a response to the fractures of Savoy’s personal history: a jarring childhood relocation from California to Washington D.C.; the the experience of growing up with mixed racial heritage and of having to learn to see herself through different sets of eyes, some deeply hostile; the death of her father while still in high school; the silence surrounding her family’s history. “Only very slowly,” explains Savoy, “Did I come to see that I would remain complicit in my own diminishment unless I stepped out of the separate trap: me from you, us from them, brown skin from depigmented skin, relations among people from relations with the land.” It seems natural, then, that Savoy’s braided prose should be as dense and rich as loam—her innate language one of layers, erosions, migrations, and confluences, of tectonic shifts and folds. Her voice is clear, yet the terrain she navigates is often uncertain, prone to sinkholes or sudden avalanche, as when in “Placing Washington D.C. After the Inauguration,” she spots the single line, “Eliza Savoy $300 in estate documents at the National Archive and “the quiet of that room caught my breath. Our great-great-great-grandmother was inked in by name as property of a dead man, to be disposed of by terms of his will.” Under Savoy’s careful rendering, we are shown how to see and read the land and its history (inseparable from the history of the people upon it) as an evolving and sometimes obscured text, the interwoven and coded strata of which contain the secrets of our individual and cultural narratives and identities: “The American landscape is a palimpsest. Layers upon layers of names and meanings lie beneath the official surface…Yes, I am a palimpsest, too, a place made over but trying to trace back.”
“To know that ancestors inhabited this history and this place yet to find little of their lives gnaws, a deep hunger,” writes Savoy. And hunger is what propels Trace—the desire to excavate, to piece together, to expose one’s origins, to prove one’s existence in order to claim a space within a “still unfolding history.” In the culminating “Epilogue at Crowsnest Pass,” Savoy returns us once again to the language, the imagery, the text that she knows best: the earth itself. She recalls her discovery, as a graduate student, of Libodiscus ascitus, a teardrop-shaped and uncategorizable fossil, one of “those pariahs of paleontology that don’t neatly fit into narratives of evolution.” She recounts the series of “happy accidents” required to bring the rare fossil into her hands, the partial and fractured history of the mountains that encased these fragments for so long. Like the fossil, she muses, “The past I’ve emerged from is also broken and pitted by gaps left by silences stretched across generations. By losses of language and voice. By human displacements. By immeasurable dimensions of lives compressed and deflated. And by dismembering narratives of who ‘we’ are to each other in this land.” And so Trace, too, is incapable of neat solution. Rather, it is the process of “active search, of “path taken”—a hand-drawn map creased and folded and torn, written upon and crossed out and written upon again. “Re-membering is an alternative to extinction,” concludes Savoy. “Home indeed lies among the ruins and shards that surround us all.” If you enter the pages of Trace, if you strive to walk among these shards, you will not come away unmarked.
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, critic, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her debut collection, Work by Bloodlight, was selected by Linda Pastan for the 2015 Cider Press Review Book Award and is forthcoming in January 2017. Her poems and reviews can be found in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, and other journals. She is the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.