01 October 2009

Rooms and Their Airs by Jody Gladding

Review by Lauren Rusk

Rooms and Their Airs
By Jody Gladding
Milkweed
Perfect Bound, 80 pages
ISBN: 978-1-57131-432-1

Link to purchase

Entering Jody Gladding’s exquisite small poems, I feel space open up and take a fuller breath than I have for a while. Within the space of her poems, nature and culture are one; I partake of their kinship with gratitude and the wonder of heightened attention.

Gladding writes with astounding freshness about essential daily acts that many millions perform. That freshness derives in part from the wholeness of her vision (and, one imagines, her life), in which mothering and birthing, for example, are indissoluble from writing.
So
her planted
body
pulls loose
shouldering down
root throat
into my other
mouth
head first
and bruised
glistening
she slips free
of all
I
meant
all I name.
Similarly, a made and haunting image is one with the maker’s body, with animals’ bodies, with chemistry, geology, and physics, in the poem “February 14—Dordogne,” about an ancient picture of a reindeer curving around a cave wall, its head not rendered.
Which is not to say she’s left anything unfinished, only that the processes of creation are ongoing. So she takes the pigment into her mouth. She mixes it with her spit. She finds the reindeer’s flank, there, curving out from the wet stone. And through a bird’s bone, she blows.
It’s her breath that fixes the line to the sweating limestone wall. Fixes it, but only in the play of shadow and light.
Often Gladding’s speaker realizes herself through her attention to other parts of nature. Just by growing, the poem “Flower Moon” observes, beings take a chance:
. . .
                                                             the early ones
         this isn’t easy for them
                                                     the trout lily the wild oats
              I was sowing then I didn’t even know
                      the boy hired to watch the building site
              I showed him where the road ended
                      and the overgrown trail
              I brought him to the open abandoned place
              and lay down
trust trust say the limp wings of emerging moths
. . .
                                                      I lay down
                                                      and no harm
                             came to me there
                                           no harm
                             done . . .
. . .
                                                           oh my love remember
                                               this time of molting crabs
                                        when nothing can protect you
                                                            and nothing does.
And culture—in the form of a boyfriend’s cigarette “lit up in the parking lot hot tar still / bubbling engine running”—agrees that the risk is vital, in the poem “Red Moon”:
the red ash
         falling away
                                            heat rising from us
so much shimmering    that moon
                            no one could say it wasn’t living
                                         no one could call it dust.
Those two poems belong to a group of pieces that take off from Native American mythopoetic names for the moon in different times of year (all the poems were written at the corresponding time). Thus, again, as with her poems about cave art, Gladding’s subject matter embraces both the natural and the cultural.

So, indeed, does the subject matter of her poems inspired by prints in the Medieval Health Handbook.
Air out the quilt. Down remembers
the wind.
Remake the bed. Down remembers
its nest[,]
the poem “Rooms and Their Airs (Camere et Aer Ipsius)” begins. Further on it continues, “Prepare a fish. If the skin’s not thick, / it lived in shallows that run among stones.” The poem concludes with the caution that culture’s oneness with nature is dynamic, not neutral: “Conserve the bones. Nothing you do here / will be forgotten.”

There is also a caution in “February 14—Dordogne.” The cave picture remains because “twelve thousand years later, the plant cover on the hillside above the cave determines the climate within, balancing the inward percolation”—as long as visitors leave the place as it is.

Mostly, though, the care that Gladding hopes we will take is implicit, in the way she imagines herself and what she creates—as part of the natural world. In “Sweet Apples (Poma Mala Dulcia),” the speaker urges,
Here, have a taste. I used to be less liberal.
I’d cling to them, think flesh of my flesh.
But where does that lead? Collapsed brown
mouths the deer won’t eat, come winter.
Better to harvest while a tree still knows
how blossoming’s a way to enter deep into
the world. Even though it leaves you
scatterbrained, a stubble of missed
connections. Or fruitful and worried
by every inching thing. Just look at them—
my sweet, sweet apples. Please eat
your fill. . . .
Having done so, I am glad that the poet, when not subject to “Dawdling (Cessatio),” acts in accord with the “Beaver Moon”:
Beaver spreads her broad tail over the moon
           all month she does this
                      she says    work   work
her tail’s gray
                      damp
                                from end to end
           she slaps it hard she says
                                             work   work
the trees raise their bare arms
                                              their empty hands
           nothing for them to do now
                      beaver gnaws away
           from every side
                                            what’s left of the day’s
                                pure   heartwood
                                beaver leaves it standing
                                                              little wonder
                                                  little spool of light—
Gladding’s pieces, as these examples show, take various forms, such as minimal lines, couplets, and opened out spaces (all with deftly meaningful line breaks), as well as lyric paragraphs. The form of each poem seems to me natural to the process it enacts—the speaker’s mind, the poem’s body: one. Rooms and Their Airs is a nourishing work.

***

Lauren Rusk teaches writing and literature at Stanford University and has served as Poet in Residence at Stanford’s campus in Berlin. Her books include Pictures in the Firestorm (Plain View, 2007) and a critical study of autobiographical prose, The Life Writing of Otherness: Woolf, Baldwin, Kingston, and Winterson (Routledge, 2002, 2009). Her second collection of poems, in progress, is titled What Remains to Be Seen.