by Katherine Soniat
110 pages, Louisiana State University Press, 2016
Katherine Soniat’s most recent collection of poems, Bright Stranger (LSU Press, 2016), is a spiraling, seven-sectioned meditation on liminality—a solitary journey through the natural world in which each examination of the speaker’s physical surroundings (cave walls, fellow hikers, plants, animals) opens, often without warning, into a free fall through time and place amid layers of personal, historic, and mythic loss. Threaded subtly, at times silently, through the collection is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: the familiar tale of “the father of song” who follows his mortally wounded bride into the Underworld, wins over Hades through the power and beauty of his lamentation, then loses her a second time when he breaks Hades’ only condition by looking back to see if she is still behind him. Under Soniat’s skillful shaping, this well-known myth acts less as a frame for the poems than as a candle flame held against a mirror and reflected back against a cavern wall—a sympathetic shade that follows the speaker knowingly through fragmented personal stories of her own experiences with departure (of a son, of a father, of a lover) and sits silently beside her as she as she endeavors to “study night and the river / as if they hold the twin of all that disappeared.”
The initial quest of Soniat’s speaker seems to be to hunt down loss, to find it so as to name or capture or interrogate it—“I tracked it through branches, then deeper into the woods,” she writes in the opening line of the book’s first poem, “Shade.” And yet this purpose seems to slowly shift as Bright Stranger progresses. Poem by poem, the speaker appears to find a new home in those liminal spaces created by life’s myriad erasures. Here, where ghosts, both animal and human, mythic and familial, swerve along canyon walls in a landscape of “saturated / fur snagged on rock. Black talons, half-buried in the / ground,” and “the ravine / filled with wings and an undergrowth of eyes,” times collapses and the futility of the original task gradually becomes apparent. Throughout, myth serves as a faithful parallel to the speaker’s own descent. In “Eurydice Turning,” for example, we are introduced to a world in which “there’s neither night nor day. // No break, no brokered hours. Only an unwinding / spool of gray.” Here Eurydice appears as a creature of the in-between spaces. Mutated by her surroundings until she becomes a partial being neither fully dead nor fully alive, she is neither human nor animal: “Half female and fish, she’s subterranean // with the blind albino eyes. Cavern silt, gill slit, and / cold skin—” Soniat’s fixation on such liminal spaces seems to come to a head in “Bright Stranger,” the seven-sectioned title poem, which comprises the entire fourth section of the book and descends section by section, fragmented memory by fragmented memory, from an 8,000-foot elevation in the Grand Canyon into the loss of a son. In the fifth section of this monumental poem, the speaker admonishes herself to embrace uncertainty: “But stay with these heights, with the awful vertigo // of not knowing to whom the dark belongs…” And in the sixth section, we circle back to the idea of tracking loss, the utter uselessness of which is now made explicit:
Here rupture—its pervasive, relentless, illusive nature—is reflected in the poem’s silences, its white spaces, as well as in its lack of punctuation. Visual silence is a strategy Soniat employs with frequency throughout the book. “Fermata,” she writes in the epigraph for “Things that Hang in the Air,” “is the musical notation either to sustain a note or pause for a duration longer than the indicated time.” Such spaces are physical manifestations of absence, “the perfect round / mouth and empty eyes of space” in which the speaker eventually comes to dwell.
Much of Bright Stranger’s power is indeed subtle, derived from pauses and steady, careful pacing—our descent into the underworld measured step by deliberate step. Muted, softened endings appear in many of the poems, allowing each poem to flow as gently into the next as the slow, dark waters of the river Styx. And yet Soniat’s extended moments of mediation, of quiet reverie, of slow ebbing can never be entirely trusted. Rather than offer shelter, such calm can act as a gateway to something unexpectedly sinister. Often, the poems flick suddenly through with fire, flaring without warning into quick violence and swerving, menacing vision. In “The Earth Flashed, Fire Here” we experience the flash of forest fire in all its surreal and harrowing glory: “The imagined was starting to hatch / in an unwieldy head with its great eyes.” And in “Dark and Secret Kin” we see the speaker alone in the dark burning manuscript pages, how “Gusts pick out and throw / phases of me in my face. Goblin-breath on the coals, the hillside // flushes red with the venom of lovers.” This is the dark side of contemplation, how the self turns animal-like upon itself in moments of contemplation, catharsis, or forced silence as in the astonishing and unhinging fourth poem of the book, “Talk of Winter:”
This terrifying, early scene is then echoed later in the collection in the penultimate stanza of “One of the First Questions,” though this time with the more tempered perspective of one who has traveled this way before: “…the greater part of transmutation / comes with restlessness as coyote howl creeps into my bed along with the / moon. Bark and bay in a chill blue light. I too vibrate with what’s alive / in the desert at dark.”
And so, too, do the poems of Bright Stranger vibrate—with a double-edged stillness, a self-knowledge braided, always, with an undercurrent of threat. For this, Soniat shows us, is what it means to journey into and among the shades of one’s life: That the price paid for the journey will forever be hauntingly indistinguishable from the journey itself. That loss will always flit the cave walls and bind itself to the bones. That the head will always turn inevitably backward, even as the feet keep moving forward.
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, 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.