• Melanie Siebert
    Deepwater Vee. McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Theresa Kishkan
    Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. Goose Lane Editions

Ursula Le Guin contrasts the spear story, “starting here and going straight there,” with the “carrier bag” story: “A holder. A recipient.” For Theresa Kishkan, that bag is most often a basket, woven, sometimes by her own hand, of vegetable materials. The basket is usually small, a container for “quiet” narratives, not capable of holding “much more than memories.” But, then, “the world is constructed of such things dreamed into being and remembered in all their textures.” The method of Mnemonic, as Le Guin would put it, is to put into each bag or basket (there are ten in this book) things “useful, edible, or beautiful, . . . and then take it home with you, home being another . . . container.” For people.

The method of Mnemonic is interrupted memory: a holder of not-quite-story, not-quite-poem, slipping and shifting from one factoid to another, some observed, some researched, some quoted. Here and there and cumulatively, it’s memoir and travelogue and autobiography, a gathering to take home. One tree and then another becomes the archive and stimulus to memory—the bark-shedding arbutus for the art of the female nude, the versatile Thuja plicata for the construction of a house. Sometimes the connections of tree to imperfectly remembered life are “natural,” sometimes pushed strenuously toward an analogy often disappearing (the invisible circulating inside the tree) for long stretches.

Kishkan writes no guidebook to trees, however informative, but a pondering, here soaring, there awkwardly self-conscious, frequently defined by Classical authors, of the work and play of remembering. The trees are from her West Coast rainforest home, but we also learn of olive trees on Crete and the copper beech (dreamed of) in the Carpathian Mountains. One of Kishkan’s epigraphs quotes Pliny: “The heart is the warmest organ.” It’s the one she depends on to maintain the beat and movement inside each of these studies of her listening to the process of remembering.

The jacket of Melanie Siebert’s Deepwater Vee might be a photograph of a painting of a photograph. Three frames (or more?) seem both to overlap (irregularly) and fuse. This study in layering is entirely apt for the poems it encloses, given that Siebert is the most compound-conscious poet I’ve read since Gerard Manley Hopkins. The compounding is most evident in the diction. But the inclination to layer and fuse is also essential to thematic and poetic sequence. The poems evoke the navigating of rivers, especially in the far north, where Siebert has worked as a wilderness guide. Rippling through these rememberings are the longer memories of navigating with Alexander Mackenzie and J. W. Tyrell, or more recently, Barry Lopez. Beyond and within these, always the stories, and travels, and place-naming of the peoples who have lived on and through these lands for millennia. Think of the image of “a sandbar building its ghost below the surface of the water.”

Another ghostly layering in the book builds from Siebert’s enthusiasm for multiplying poems with the same title. Seven poems titled “Busker” sing on and off through the first half of the book; four poems are titled “Grandmother”; “Mackenzie’s Dream” appears on page 23 and again six pages later; there are six “Letters to Kitty, Never Written.” So, reading the book front to back (not particularly critical here) is to read one poem that is several: a compound of takes that blur and confuse and fuse and overlap into some frustration of memory.

Rivers are running everywhere in these poems, and so the flow moves the diction with words endlessly running into and over one another. Compounds, of varying novelty, are everywhere: “downstream” might be expected, and maybe “eddy-in”; but “windskin” and “gull-flush” and scores of others surprise. Nouns serve as verbs— another form of compounding. And English speakers try to translate the voices with which the people name themselves: “coast-dwellers-where-bones-abound.” The effect throughout, as we hear in one of the Busker’s songs, is the music of “perpetual / dispersal.” Two are two, but joined into a quite other one.

With their “throat-singing” and “sand-seep,” Siebert and Kishkan are word-mapping their landscapes in perpetual dispersal. “Silence: The maps you are making / when you don’t know where you are.”

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