- The Geese at the Gates
The Geese at the Gates, Drucilla Wall’s debut poetry collection, which the Irish Times hails as a work with “sharp poetic awareness,” is a mesmerizing journey through time, space, and culture, at once elegiac and generous, clear-headed and witty, with echoes of Louise Erdrich, Simon Ortiz, and Sharon Olds (Borbála Faragó, July 2, 2011).
Her opening and title poem characterizes geese who have abandoned migration as serene, “happily shitting / from the rooftops of the university,” but estranged from their relations, like the speaker and her human counterparts (11). “We float,” she says, “heads on the breast of pillow God, / wondering how to rid ourselves / of these fat, honking angels here among us” (12). Wall strips away this false serenity throughout part 1 as she explores personal and regional history in the West, juxtaposing beer can chicken in Kansas with “Invisibility Lesson #1,” which concludes, “You’ll know you get it right / by the deer ignoring you; and the arrowhead hunters, / … shouting your obituary / right across your path” (18).
The tone turns sharper as the speaker recalls her indigenous grandfather’s lost farm in Alabama, promised to him by his grandmother, a “relic of the cheated past,” but sold ostensibly to cover family gambling debts (23). This memory sparks the speaker’s melancholy in the poem’s closing: “The problem is, Grandfather, I am standing / up here in Omaha. Out here, … I couldn’t name / a fish in the river … / How can it be, Grandfather, every time I stand / the acid of that Alabama farm boils in my mouth?” (24–25). “Wound” and “Creek Indian War: White Stick Survival Song” extend the bitterness of these memories to national history, reflecting the tension between the speaker’s immersion in white culture and the ancestral taproot which sustains her. In “Dirty Hands [End Page 328] at the Gateway to the West,” surrounded by relics of conquest such as a stuffed grizzly bear and a “life-size bronze / of Thomas Jefferson gestur[ing] / toward a teepee with genuine artifacts / and polyurethane Indians,” she bends to the Mississippi River, clinging to that touchstone of body and spirit amidst the polluted and profane (31).
Subtler echoes of this spirit voice remain in parts 2 and 3, as the poems brighten with themes of family, pets, and childhood memories softened by time. “Matthew Dreaming at Age Twelve” weaves a mother’s comforting voice into an imaginary war, tugging on the opening paradox of docility and wildness in the urbanized geese honking at the edge of consciousness. Urban culture is also counterposed with wildness in “Spike Television Is for Men” and “Yellowstone, Trail Closed,” in which the gore of liposuction and facial surgery on a bar television anticipates the imminent destruction of a hiker facing a grizzly protective of her cubs. Part 3 begins with a pet dog taking a bullet to fend off an intruder, and the earlier tension between the speaker’s past and present begins to ease as the poems return to kinship and bonds with place. “Conversations with White Cat” opens with the speaker’s awareness of hunger and abuse in the world beyond her bedroom while the white cat lies on her head, purring and singing: “Yes, but this day is good. / This day is good. Rise up, Mother. / This day is good. Hear my prayer. / Your white cat loves you this day” (65). The final poem, “River Husband,” also sounds this hopeful note, moving beyond the invisibility of spirit and place suggested by earlier poems, as the speaker and the river she typifies are now seen, known, and loved.
Like the geese at the gates who have changed their story, Wall’s poems move from dis-ease to a nuanced rootedness, from the lost farm to the white cat purring the promise of the day. This is no easy journey; she reminds us often of the gaps in this carefully negotiated inhabitation of time and place. Yet these poems are driven by generosity, allowing readers to find what there is...