What Will Keep Us Alive
Sundress Publications, 2015
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
This is a book rich in people, places, and things. You’ll run into witches and carnies, Barbie, a human cannonball, sailors and whalers, the Sonoran desert, the American Midwest, Eve, Lot’s wife, Frida Kahlo, scary family members, ostriches and honeybees, still life paintings and granite sculpture, Twizzlers for hair, “broken bits of jewelry, a beetle’s leg, one tiny / doll’s shoe, a blue marble,” and more.
What will keep us alive might be moving west, starting over, keeping bees, baking bread, or paying attention to how the earth does it: “Even the worms that push to the surface in spring / extol the wonders of ground thaw, / sun pushing downward through the dirt.” Indeed, in What Will Keep Us Alive, Kristin LaTour keeps extolling wonders and pushing downward through dirt to find gold.
Here’s an example of gold from “Time to Start Over,” where lineated stanzas alternate with prose stanzas:
This is where we can be free, in open space with cattle, a large framed house. We don’t kill every man who comes, nor do we set evil on other women. Our hums as we sleep soothe towns whole miles away.
We give praise for peace and plenty.
We cast spells for light-shining joy.
We are of the earth, water, sky.
We sing branches and beaches, our memory.
I always try not to read autobiography into poetry, and LaTour helps by 1) making it horrific to do so, in “Family Tree” and 2) making the tree figuratively literal, “empty bourbon bottles / abandoned at the trunk” with
That stunted branch cut off for sanity’s sake;
he removed his cousins’ hands and placed them
palms up on ice in the picnic basket. Left to bleed,
they missed their mamas, the biscuits and honey.
See what I mean? At least, as she does in “Marriage Advice,” she gives fair warning:
Marrying into a coven isn’t advised
since your mother-in-law might ask you
to flay a baby, dip its legs in flour then egg
then flour again.
Fortunately, there’s a way out:
you need to find your own
old leather book, translate the pages of runes
into something that saves you.
Take your golden eggs, escape the garden.
Release all the dogs and run.
I was powerfully moved by “Sibling,” first published in Menacing Hedge (lineated there, as a prose poem in the book; I like it both ways).
You call me to say your pencil drawing was well received, but the watercolor didn’t come out right. You sniffle and pause; I know this is not the reason you called me—
You say you can’t remember whole passages of your childhood. They seem redacted, like charcoal smeared over the thick pages of your past.
I tell you about the time we made small piles of leaves under the cottonwood trees, beds for our dolls. A whole nursery of blankets, a pot to heat bottles. We nurtured our babies for an autumn afternoon as the sun’s light filtered through the sparse branches.
Now this one might really be autobiographical, so tender, so real. And it’s in Part One, which ends with “How Myths Begin,” a short poem that leads into the mythical feel of Part Two, with its “Recipe for a Star,” its rows of words laid out like rows of corn, alfalfa, or soybeans, its family tree and marriage advice, and, in the midst of its sorrows, its hints of escape and renewal.
The richness of language and image and the mythic resonance continue in Part Three, where we find a woman seeming to peel off her own skin to sew herself into a dress made of personal and family history. “A length of her cheek is like parchment, / muslin, music—Appalachian / full of timbre and twang.” There is a tribute to poet Reginald Shepherd, in an “I” poem full of myth and grief: “I was your student, Pandora, / opening her gift too early, / too clumsy to gather the lessons back in.”
If so, she’s not “too clumsy” now, her gifts in abundance here. I’m amazed at how her description of a maritime task, in “Barnacles,” resonates today, a time of violence and trouble: “I imagine my hand is a claw slashing away at small-minded politicians, bomb-marked landscapes, protesters’ badly-spelled epithets.” It has to be done. Barnacles create drag on a ship, wasting fuel; the trick is to scrape them off safely, without corroding the vessel or poisoning the sea. Slash away, slash away. Sail away free.