A Review of Jennifer Elise Foerster's Leaving Tulsa
University of Arizona Press, 2013 (88 pages)
There is a strange beauty running through Jennifer Elise Foerster's first book of poems, Leaving Tulsa, a breathless and eerie strain that explores multiple narratives of the self, the landscape, about culture, about history, about loss. The reader is taken through the arid countryside that, while may be familiar to some, here, takes on a haunting aura that reflects the speakers' grief and longing where "cicadas/ deafen the sultry twilight" and the only rainbows in sight are made from gasoline (47). However, these poems are not just lament and elegy; rather, they are poems and stories that blur the boundaries of self, what it means to be human in a complex world like ours
It would be impossible to make it through this book without reflecting on Magdalena's powerful narrative, which runs through the book like a backbone, hinging the reader to both the physical and ethereal experience of losing a loved one. She is named in the collection's third poem, "Magdalena in the Desert," which begins like a memory:
There were no angels
in the wind that day, only magpies
cawing in the trees, silk clouds
strung between their teeth
as you lay alone in the violent light,
flattened beneath their broad black wings (4).
And while grief is something deeply personal, Foerster's poems, too, explore a more communal sense of grief, of loss, of longing. In the poem "Leaving Tulsa," the speaker returns to a grandmother's, Cosetta's, land, her "Indian allotment" after the funeral. And here, yes, the poems are deeply personal, telling a narrative through specifics from remembering a "monsoon of frogs" to memories of "fishing for dragonflies" to the "bundle of beads" the speaker's grandma buried beneath the roots, but also, of a people. The grief becomes communal when the speaker remembers Cosetta's words and what happened following her death: "They tell/the story of our family. Cosetta's land/flattened to a parking lot." (10) Here, we're exploring the grief, the loss, of land, of culture.
Foerster, herself identifying as both European and Muscogee descent, explores a complex notion of identity through her works. A particularly powerful poem, "Vanishing Lessons" gives the reader instructions, with a rather tongue-in-cheek tone, as to how to disappear, or perhaps, how to make a part of one's self disappear. "Gather the bones,/mortar them with sugar, add a capful of whiskey and corn cake flour. Stamp flat." and, as the poem continues, gains intensity, gains urgency: "Eat her. Pretend you didn't," ". teach her to read,/to enunciate the words infidel/and whore." and finally, ".send her to the curbside/up the hill from her ghosts. Tell her to wait," (30). These instructions, presumably alluding to the forgetting, the disappearing, the drowning out of the Muscogee culture and heritage, are heart-breaking, difficult, and powerful acts of remembering in and of themselves, of acknowledgement, of healing, in both a micro and macro sense.
Too, the poems in this collection are peppered with references to the author's European descent. Particularly in the poem, "Fugue," (which almost brushes up against "Vanishing Lessons," providing a compelling contrast), the speaker reflects on blood, passed from generations of women: how hands "bloomed edelweiss," of drinking "teas of birch bark, alpine rose/ to drown the sounds of wolves," to diving "into the Danube" (32). This tension of cultures, of languages, of images coexist and blend together in this collection in an interesting way, blurring the boundaries of colonized and colonizer, providing a multifaceted reading that complicates our understandings of identity. Instead, identity here, it seems is linked to the land itself, the earth, the ash, the birds.
And I think that's how the poems all come together. Leaving Tulsa is a book, at its heart, about maps, about tracing and discovering the earth and who we are in it, and ultimately, maybe even ironically, about leaving that behind to try and start anew. The collection's final poem, "California," reads quite differently from the rest of the collection. Here, the reader is introduced to a new landscape, a flavor of words, of brightness, even with "miles of chrysanthemums," where "the clouds were//oysters, opening and closing" and the speaker "drank horchata at the cantina, /tangoed with a sailor." However, as the old saying goes, wherever you go, there you are. The final image, what the reader is left to reflect on is this:
I awoke to the black horse
Gnawing hot gravel, the maps
Ash in my mouth (75).
Leaving Tulsa is an ambitious first book of poems that maps the complexities of identity, of grief, and how it's all tied to the landscape beneath our feet. It attempts to articulate through specific, concrete and clean images that which would otherwise be unspeakable, to blur the boundaries of self and place. Foerester teaches us to look around us, to examine "each leaf/ underfoot" to find "the story of you" (38). It is a lesson worth learning, and the book, as whole, is a testament to the power contemporary poetry holds to usher readers towards understanding of the grit of who we are.