Wayne State University Press | 2019 | ISBN: 9780814346532 | 80 pages
“Carnal devotion” is the phrase that comes to mind after reading Ragged Anthem, Chris Dombrowski’s third collection of poetry. The carnal is everywhere, sometimes as overtly as in the poem “Phrases,” which opens, “Boathouse sex—if you aren’t aroused yet, / you’ll never be.” But the devotion is just as prevalent, and in almost every case, the two are inextricable from one another.
Some of the work of the devotion is done through conventional religious references coming mostly from the Christian tradition that appear in strange incarnations to ground and paradoxically elevate the discourse of the spirit with consistently surprising and achingly gorgeous moves. In Dombrowski’s version, we aren’t tricked into eating the fruit. Rather, we are encouraged, if the apple “hangs too high,” to “knock it down with a branch and eat it in three / juice spilling bites.” The stained glass windows in this world are
Two black wolves. I heard their musculature resist the water, then saw sunlight bristling off their coats.
And even if the only boat at hand is the one made by the fish bones of our dinner cooked over a “stick fire,” we are encouraged to “fold” ourselves in and “row.”
To read this collection is to feel oneself immersed in the world, in general, and in particular the Montana landscape of the author’s home. Among the mountains and rivers and rills, the cottonwoods and larches, we brush up against the other creatures we share the planet with, such as elk, deer, raccoons, bears, different kinds of birds and fish, mayflies, and snakeflies. In “Swallows Building Nests,” the speaker’s imagined afterlife traverses spectrums of gender, kind, and sentience:
When I am mud let me be the woman whose bust the swallows sculpt tonight beneath barn eaves, whose breasts they duck iridescently into . . .
Having read Dombrowski’s much-acclaimed book of nonfiction, Body of Water, I know the reason these encounters feel so real and poignant is because they come straight out of his life as a flyfishing guide, a hiker, and a hunter. These poems are reports from the offices of slopes and currents. Only in such places do lines like these originate:
The light smelled the way frost feels melting between two fingers and a blade of grass.
There’s a gritty, Keatsian embrace of the mysteries that swirl through these pages and imbue the material world with ethereal qualities. The angels here are the squeak in a muck boot, “refugee / of the Seraphim,” and the halos are dropped larch needles “around the base of each rough trunk.” More than once the speaker admits to not knowing the name of a thing—a flower, a worry—though that thing is nonetheless present and doing its appointed work. Dombrowski is at home in living the questions: “Fellow travelers, / What does the land require of us?”
The many incandescent evocations of the creaturely kind are tempered by both personal and cultural heartache. The gratitude one feels in these poems is all the sweeter for the way the speaker writes of one of his first loves: “If once there was a girl who lay with you, ignorant / to the tumor blooming beneath her brown hair, / she lies there still.” In “Going Home,” the speaker travels back to a river where a childhood friend was drowned before “they sawed his neck from his torso.” More than once, the ugly truths of environmental degradation appear, as in the “Detroit River” that we are told is “full of duck shit and blood, gasping carp / and holographic oil.” And the speaker admits his membership in the “tribe” that “struck its camp of cul-de-sacs” across land sacred to indigenous peoples.
This is a true poet writing truthful poems in the way Wilfred Own described. Dombrowski’s first two books of poetry received some deserved attention, but this one, his best yet, makes a strong case for the importance of his voice in American poetry. It startles as it deepens and widens us. Its genius lies in exactly how it “adds to the stock of available reality.” It opens us to possibilities within that cannot and should not be separated from those without, the spirit here as much in the flesh as the animal in the human.
The glorious song Ragged Anthem sings reveals Dombrowski’s allegiance to the living systems of Earth, to kindness, sincerity, wisdom, vulnerability, family, to music and love and all such numinous things, and most of all, a brand of gritty, irreverent, and boldy imperfect grace available to all.
Derek Sheffield’s collection of poetry Through the Second Skin(Orchises, 2013) was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. His poems have also appeared in The Southern Review, Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, AGNI, and The Georgia Review, and were given special mention in the Puschart Prize Anthology. He lives with his family on the eastern slopes of the Cascades in Washington, where he teaches poetry and ecological writing at Wenatchee Valley College. He is the poetry editor of Terrain.org.
Header photo by Ben Queenborough, courtesy Shutterstock.