Women of Verse

Three new collections by Southwest poets shine

I've long considered the American Southwest to be rife with ridiculously talented writers. However, as small-press poetry publishers continue to inundate me with verse collections, I feel the need to update: The Southwest teems with wonderful women poets.

The first of three books to arrive last month and blow the top of my head off? Pamela Uschuk's rowdily rendered Wild in the Plaza of Memory (WingsPress, $16). Uschuk, who won the 2001 Literature Award from the Tucson Pima Arts Council as well as the 2010 American Book Award, is one of those poets who can literally write about anything and find a new twist. Case in point: Her poem "Learning Subtraction," a recollection of that moment in her childhood when she began to consider mortality and loss in the face of nature:

Michigan was flat as my chest,

the Looking Glass River so lucid

that even at seven I could read

its slow titanic thoughts. Even at seven, I knew

that I'd fallen into the upside-down heart

of a world always saying goodbye.

Some of these works are intensely autobiographical, yes. But others are deeply philosophical, like the haunting list poem "Who Today Needs Poetry," in which Uschuk cites a vast array of natural flora and fauna that care not a whit for man's clever and artful scribblings: "not the hollow howl of peacocks / caged across the dry wash nor the banshee screams / of coyotes hunching after cottontails." Ultimately, the poem brings the reader to the realization that only poetry can capture and crystallize such images, seen or imagined, and remind us of our speck-sized importance in the grand scheme of things. In other words, the answer to the poem's question is everyone. In sum, Wild is a perfectly controlled work of art.

Demonstrating less-superficial (or traditional) control and more-experimental sensibilities is Tucson resident Melissa Buckheit's extraordinary Noctilucent (Shearsman Books, $15). Published in England but easily available via Amazon, this debut collection is clearly informed by post-modernism and, to a vague degree, feminist theory. The real goal, however, isn't academicism, but dazzling language, and Buckheit is a tireless inventor.

Here, for example, is the quiet yet powerful opening of "The Future," a meditation on time's crushing momentum:

This is what is meant by stars in the universe—

they brush away the dust of my face


Orange Mars, blue Venus,

we sleep as the dust of the mountain.

Buckheit's poems also possess a startling erotic bent, as in "End of Summer": "You are the beautiful / lip / against my nipple / but the red cup, a raspberry / is yours." And on the flip side, there is the poet's dark, aggressive imagery, which comes in sudden, powerful bursts, as in "Neva": "I am the coathanger twisted for abortion." Yikes!

There are plenty of talented Tucson poets, of course, but in Noctilucent, Buckheit wields the purest lyricism and the widest range of technical skill. Stepping into a Buckheit poem is akin to entering a distant yet familiar world in which everything is rendered on a cosmic scale, yet also somehow incredibly intimate. I'm eagerly anticipating Buckheit's next book.

Finally, Arizona bard Karen Rigby's debut Chinoiserie (Ahsahta Press, $17.50), winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, is another stunner. I don't normally go in for much ekphrasis, the description of visual works of art in poetic form. But Rigby does it so well, it's impossible to complain. Take, for instance, "Design for a Flying Machine," after Leonardo Da Vinci's fantastic and famous concept, into which Rigby articulates the artist's infinite genius:

Nothing but a bridge between

that other life and here, where the stomach of a plane

casts shadows before it burns the acre.

The sketch contains a faceless man, an X

across his chest, the parachute

dreamed centuries too soon,

too late.

But Rigby isn't a yawn-risking classicist. Her cool and contemporary poem "Lovers in Anime" is a gorgeous post-haiku cycle that pays tribute to Japanese cartoons and offers zingers like: "Sakuras splice with birds alighting; a montage / of petals and a round-mouthed O." And: "The person you loved will lead you / to Hamada City or the bamboo / whitened by snow." The poet simply doesn't miss a thing; she's a visual omnivore, a gluttonous devourer and translator of images.

Rigby—like Uschuk and Buckheit—has fashioned a remarkable book of poems at a time when a survivable audience for poetry seems tenuous in our ADD-addled Era of Distraction. I'll take these three Southwest poets' imagery and imagination over wasted Facebook hours any day.

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