Saturday, July 24, 2010

Marianne Broyles' "The Red Window" Reviewed by Thomas Hubbard

It's possible I may be in trouble for posting this review, since I "borrowed" it from
The Raven Chronicles. If anyone has qualms about it you know where to find me. The newest issue is out now which includes my prize winning essay The Siam Sequences. Monday night 7-26, is the launch reading of WISH YOU WERE HERE issue at Seattle's Richard Hugo House, which I've just recently learned used to be a mortuary; I'll be looking for hooks in the ceiling. If I have my shit together I'll take some photos of the reading and if no one cares I'll post them here, online.

Merci beaucoup! (That's French for I'm Adorable)


The Red Window, by Marianne Aweagon Broyles

West End Press
Albuquerque, NM 87125
ISBN: 978-0-9816693-1-1
2008, Paper, 48 pp, $10.95

Reviewed by Thomas Hubbard

Lake Eufala, a giant manmade reservoir near the edge of Oklahoma's hills, lies directly in the path of the 600 mile commute between Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Dallas, Texas. When I was living in Fayetteville and freelancing in Dallas, my office was in Dallas. Driving that stretch, especially at night, always spooked me just a bit. Now I understand why, after reading Marianne Aweagon Broyles' poem, "Crossing Lake Eufala."

Just when I think I can't take any more
open plains, we cross Lake Eufala,
acres and acres of water
in the horizon

There are lake homes enclosed by pines and boats tied at private docks.
I say, "I'd like to live here one day."

You don't answer right away, so I wait. Then your words
form like the unfolding of an origami crane.

"No one said they knew it, but this lake was built on burial mounds
of the Mississippian Culture, or maybe the Hopewells,
so I wouldn't do that,"
you say....

Broyles' collection, The Red Window, brings into focus the unique perspective of a mixed-blood Cherokee living in the invaders' world. She refers to the history of natives' interface with the invaders' army in "Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle Meets Custer," revealing one of the many reasons for distrust of the dominant culture.

What did you think that winter day
when you rode, your wife beside you,
to meet the general?

Even though the first time, four years ago
at Sand Creek, the flag of truce meant
nothing to soldiers looking for gold who found
your people in the way?

Now it is the same predicament.

What did you think that winter day
when you rode, your wife beside you,
to meet the general?

Did the snow hitting your face seem colder,
did the whipping of the white flag seem louder?

Was the last vision of this earth you loved
the long, black barrel of the general's gun?

Broyles' retelling of Custer murdering the old chief cuts through "mainstream forgetfulness" like cataract surgery restores clear vision. But these poems, many of which are not necessarily identifiable as "Indian," also bring to vivid life several characters who show no indication of being anything other than "ordinary people." Broyles writes of human dilemmas springing from family ties, health issues and everyday concerns common to us all. And she does it with such grace!

The first poem, "Estate Sale," visits a "workingclass neighborhood" along with some members of her family, where relatives with flannel
coats, baseball caps, tinted bifocals
blend with other Minnesotans...

Blend, that is, into the crowd on the front lawn of a home that will be auctioned along with the presumably deceased owner's personal belongings. Broyles sees the bargain hunters "riffling through a dead stranger's life" like archaeologists:

Some drink old coffee from Styrofoam cups.
Some sit on a brown and mustard floral sofa
while others examine muffin tins and pots
or Reader's Digest condensed books.

And she notes their failure to show respect for objects the deceased woman had kept about her:

...cousin Bernadette walks up to report we're leaving
there's nothing here worth buying.

Broyles sketches the scene so plainly and with such economy as to draw the reader into it almost instantaneously, and upon her leaving the sale and our leaving the poem, we feel her embarrassment at having attended. These poems visit and revisit her family, and this is only one of the several perspectives she reveals. Another, "Thirteen," is her telling of a story, handed down by her mother and grandmother, in which Broyles' mother, at age thirteen, has her braids cut off, despite her father's tears. And in "Bettie Dunback Does Not Rest Here," she pays homage to her great-great grandmother, who survived the Cherokees' forced removal from their homeland:

At Greenleaf Cemetery in Tahlequa
within the Cherokee Nation.
Only her bones rest here...

Two poems, "Family History" and "Aunt Pearl," provide a glimpse into the dynamics of Broyles' post-removal Cherokee family, and within the family we feel a gentle touch of kindness—even a recognition of human needs beyond food and shelter. In "Family History," Broyles and her mate discuss their relationship which has moved him to "hate her." This after her mother talked with her about her man:

My mother calls you a runner
like her father, her brothers.
She recounts, for my benefit,
her father's visits to other women.

But on the facing page, in "Aunt Pearl," Broyles depicts her mother (whose own mother had died) telling about her father taking her along to visit

...his first of three wives
(as if this would help a thirteen-year-old girl
whose mother, his second wife, had died).

He asked his daughter to call the womanAunt. The picture—and perhaps the man's intention, in an "Indian" way, of providing a female role model for her—becomes clear in the poem's last stanza, where Broyles talks about her mother's attitude regarding the visits:

She still says she liked Aunt Pearl—
a good woman who punctuated her father's life
like her own mother did.
The same way wooden clothespins
keep laundry far enough apart to dry completely
without falling from the line.

Here, Broyles shows the family members' respect for one another through their matter-of-fact gentleness toward one another in what could have been a very tense situation. And this telling, in particular, demonstrates her knack of disappearing from between reader and story. She is an expert storyteller.

To read the best of Broyles’ poems is to view portraits that, once in clear focus, become moving pictures. Many of her pieces in The Red Window come immediately to mind as examples, but one, in particular, stands out:

The Eye Clinic

We wait together at the IHS eye clinic.
First, we speak of the cool day,
then you tell me about
your declining eyesight
with a self-deprecating laugh.
I'm blind in my left eye, you say.
I've had cataract surgery
on the other — it took months
for my friends to convince me.
I was so scared to have the doctors
touch my good eye.

But it turned out all right.

My eight-year-old grandson
took real good care of me —
he'd fry me an egg and bring
me coffee every morning.

I could finally see.

You rest your hand on the walker,
your smile never fading as you
look at me through large
bifocals — your eyes full moons split
between heaven and earth.
I smile, too. We sit for a while
in contemplative silence until Joe appears
to call you back for your exam.
He speaks to you in Keresan, then says,

Let's take your horse this way,

as you get up and pivot
your walker one way, then another
to ease your journey, straight
and dignified, through the narrow
doorway of the physical.

Like so many poets exploring freshly acquired technique, Broyles sometimes tacks her own resolution onto the end of a poem. But even in these instances, her work stands strong and bright despite an extra line or two. This poet is definitely one to watch and follow, and The Red Window is a collection to buy and wear out.

Thomas Hubbard: a retired writing instructor, he won Seattle’s Grand Slam in 1995. He authored Nail and other hardworking poems, Year of the Dragon Press, 1994. He published Children Remember Their Fathers, an anthology of performance poets; Junkyard Dogz, a chapbook also available on audio CD; and Injunz, a chapbook. His book reviews have appeared in Square Lake and Raven Chronicles. Recent publication credits include poems in Arabesques Review: International Poetry and Literature Journal, and ToTopos Poetry International Fall 2006, Albani: Indigenous Poetry and a short story in Red Ink. He presented instruction at Whidbey Island Writers Conference in March, 2007 and has featured for several Pacific Northwest venues, including Tacoma’s Distinguished Writers Series and Whatcom Poetry Series: The Poet as Art. Hubbard formerly served on the Washington Poets Association’s board of directors.