The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor
The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, by Sandy Longhorn, is a truly haunting book of poems, full of blood, bones, death, mysterious disappearances, and eerie beauty. There are poems with titles that begin “Haunting Tale…” or “Cautionary Tale…” to give the reader a warning up front, and later within. With farm and prairie settings, these are folk tales and fairy tales rooted in reality and place—roots and root cellars, fields and orchards, switchgrass and black dirt. Taken together, they create a new mythology, a sort of history of the prairie that is also an explanation of the effects of a prairie upbringing on the hearts, minds, bodies, and personal journeys of girls. Some escape, some stay, and some transform.
In “Cautionary Tale of Girls and Birds of Prey,” a girl knows enough by instinct to stay away from the hawk. Alas, her father tries to teach her otherwise, exposing her to the raptor’s violence, little by little, to make her strong enough to face it in the world. She observes what happens, closely: “Only the snakes went quietly when plucked from the grass, / but she knew their writhing was a form of screaming.”
She also knew herself, and she was right, all along, to fear that great bird. “In the end, the pain and the wind ripped any sound from her throat, / but her father saw her from a distance, twisting.” This poem turns out to be a cautionary tale for fathers.
The potential for transformation—so important in mythologies—is made explicit in the section called “Book of Transformations.” In “Prairie Innocent,” the prairie itself is transformed, from native blooming grasses to “barns, row crops, and the orchard of scorched fruit trees.” In “Haunting Tale for Girls Held Captive” parents try to keep a girl home on the farm (after she’s imagined “Paree”?) and curse her in their urgency to keep her:
With their oath, a bolt of pain transformed
the girl, her bones hardening to branches,
her feet thinning, sinking to deep roots.
Longhorn knows what’s at stake in desiring something other than what a girl is or what a girl has, and also what’s at stake in a world of constant change.
But some of the fairy tales here have happy endings or seeming magic. In “Fairy Tale for Girls Who Seek to Meet the Horizon,” a girl “took to wandering” rather than meet the fate for which she was being trained:
Then, one day, she reached
a crest and stopped to catch her breath, her eyes
snagged by the horizon. A clear, severe line.
She began her march, then, toward the point miles off
that would surely prove a place where she could sing
the songs that made her throat ache with wanting,
her lips and tongue loosened and undone.
It’s hard not to hear “A clear, severe line” as a line of poetry, as well as a horizon, especially followed by those “songs.” But it could be a line to be crossed in a challenge, or even a fishing line (“snagged”), an image used elsewhere in the book. There are poems with titles that begin “Autobiography as…,” but I don’t for a moment read these as sheer or mere autobiography, or as the confessions of a single girl, woman, or poet. They represent shared experience—dangers befallen or met, personal growth, challenges accepted, tasks performed or rejected. This book is a map of similar journeys, as named for us in the final section, “Cartography as Elegy.”
There are saints in the book, and perhaps implied “sinners” or transgressors, but all are presented with compassion and without judgment, allowed to live and die within their own mapped and unmapped adventures. Girls and readers have choices, and are allowed to make mistakes. For example:
“Touch Me” Misread as “Torch Me”
How like fire fingers are,
curled in fists or flat and stroking.
The recipient’s skin
Who hasn’t wanted to be consumed
to breathe in and scorch
the lining of the lungs with the breath of the beloved?
In winter and alone
we have each craved the match, the smoke and ashes.
Love and the Devil both wear red veils
and offer locks of their red, red hair
What will you do with yours?
Without the flesh, burnt hair is not the same
as a burnt offering.
There’s an echo of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” here. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths doesn’t claim to have all the answers, or even clear, unwrinkled maps to the misty future. But it has wisdom inside story, echo inside song, and plenty of truth and consequences.
February is a busy month of readings for Sandy Longhorn, as detailed in her own blog here:
Book cover art by Marilyn Strother. Text and cover design by Daniel Krawiec.