Kristen Hewitt Reviews Leaving Tulsa by Jennifer Elise Foerster
One gets the feeling that the visions in Jennifer Elise Foerster’s debut book of poems, Leaving Tulsa, come to her as she drives in a trance, mile after mile, over a desert highway. Staring out the windshield at a raw and jarring landscape sliced by “the road’s black gash,” hallucinatory dreams and memories rise through these poems in waves, depicting the landscape of her consciousness.
Foerster, who is both a member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma and of German and Dutch descent, is on a quest in these poems to uncover her stories—stories of her family, her ancestors, of trauma and knowledge of her tribe and the land that she comes from and left as a young girl, or at least thought she did. It makes sense, then, that the metaphorical project of Leaving Tulsa is to create an atlas, mapping Foerster’s way back to herself: There’s “an atlas / on the underside of my dream . . . // a map of America / flapping in the dark.”
Leaving Tulsa is in some ways more about returning than it is about leaving, about revisiting, over and over again, the people and places of the past, about being haunted. In the title poem of the book, Foerster gives an elegy for her grandmother, but also for the land her grandmother lived on, for all that was lost with her. “Once there were coyotes, cardinals / in the cedar. You could cure amnesia / with the trees of our back-forty.” But this has changed by the time her grandmother dies. Foerster writes, “She was covered in a quilt, the Creek way. / But I don’t know this kind of burial: / vanishing toads, thinning pecan groves, / peach trees choked by palms.” Now, she sees “Cosetta’s land / flattened to a parking lot.” The story of what has happened to America’s land and people has a hold on Foerster throughout this book, but so too does Cosetta’s strength and spirit of resistance: “When the bulldozers came / with their documents from the city / and a truckload of pipelines, / her shotgun was already loaded.” It is this spirit that guides Foerster to keep searching for the past and that compels her to give voice to it:
Grandma potted a cedar sapling
I could take on the road for luck.
She used bark for heart lesions
doctors couldn’t explain.
To her they were maps, traces of home . . .
Landmarks are embedded in Foerster’s dreams—the traces of home she’ll need to find her way back. Sometimes it’s a flash of a blue dress, other times a shell or the texture of clay dug from a river bottom. But always her project is to weave and sculpt the swirling fragments into something lovely, startling, and cogent, grounded in the land she comes from.
Foerster is an oracle, channeling transmissions from across time and space, the voices and ghosts of her ancestors and her childhood self, demanding to be remembered and made a part of Foerster’s story. In “Voice Lessons,” the speaker insists, “You were supposed / to sing with me. / When I breathed into your ribs / the other half of my lung, / anointed with salt / your temples and heels, / sealed the root medicine / under your tongue— / you were supposed to listen . . . You were supposed / to speak . . .” Foerster can’t help but listen, and as she opens herself up to these voices, they point her in the direction she needs to go, and she brings them to life.
Often it is the old woman, witch, or grandmother figure who appears and speaks to Foerster as she struggles to reconcile her divergent identities—memories of her childhood with Muskogee relatives in the American Midwest and in Germany, where in both places she felt like an outsider. In “Genesis,” one of the long anchor poems of the book, she writes:
She places yellow kernels into my palm.
I hadn’t wanted to remember
the turtle spine I spilled from
but her breasts creased
beneath layers of cloth
remind me of my grandmother:
plucking corn at the farm
until my fingers went numb—
foreigner even then.
Signaling to Foerster, through this dreamscape, the old woman “peeled the shells from turtles, / placed the meat inside me as a thumping heart.” It is in this intimate contact with this woman and with the natural world—with the corn kernels, with the bodies of animals—that Foerster can remember her way and lose her sense of being on the outside: “This will be your compass / out of the woods,” the old woman says.
At other times, the figure who emerges to visit Foerster is that of Magdalena, a young women whose death in a car accident in the desert evokes the violence leveled against both Muskogee women and against America herself, cut open by highways, land and people sacrificed to a long history of erasure. Imagining the resulting coma blanketing the country she says, “I believe / when America awakes / she will not remember any of this.”
The symbolism in the Magdalena poems is dark and rich, blending Muskogee and Christian mythology with the starkness of the nighttime highway, and the sad beauty of the mountains through which it cuts. Magdalena is a sacrificial lamb, and Foerster is haunted by her own complicity in the girl’s death:
I’m just another lost American
smashing locusts on her windshield
addicted to a damaged range
and the highway that seams it—
that I would name you Magdalena
prairie dress hemmed
with a gasoline rainbow
The poems in Leaving Tulsa are not easy—they require sitting with, as with maps and clues from across different times and places, real and imagined. “I believe” she says, “that the stars on the undersides of our skulls / can spell the way home.” Taken apart, they might leave you in a fog, as upon waking too soon from a dream, but taken together, they are new way forward, a new body and earth and constellation, a new history. Foerster succeeds beautifully in her “promise to re-write / the pages left behind // strewn across highways / of god’s green country,” redeeming, remembering, and transforming what has been lost into something new: “If there were nothing to remember / there would not be the urgency / for stories. Each leaf / underfoot: a story of you.”