The Wishing Tomb
88 pp., Perugia Press
As a matter of course, I like to disclose my relationship with the author of the book I am reviewing. I find it easier than trying to explain later how and why I came to write a positive review (you should all know by now I do not write negative reviews) for the book. Too many people for my comfort try to make some sort of nepotistic connection, as if I expect the author in question to support my work in return of a favorable review. That just isn't so.
I have known Amanda Auchter, or rather, I have had dealings with her since her early days editing Pebble Lake Review. Amanda graciously accepted several of my poems for that publication, and those acceptances came at a point in my writing life when that acceptance made me feel as if a burden was being lifted off my shoulders. Since then, I have followed her presence on line and of course now with the advent of Facebook, I have come to see pieces and fragments of her personal life, which always adds depth to my understanding of the work.
When setting out to write a book so focused on a theme, as The Wishing Tomb is, the reader comes to the book with certain expectations. The reader expects to read about the topic at hand from the writer's perspective. One expects certain sensibilities and perhaps the reader will rely upon past experiences with other similar projects. When I heard the book of poems focused on the history of New Orleans I have to admit I was expecting something akin to B.H. Fairchild's work. I was expecting more history than lyric, more sociology than image. I am not saying Fairchild is lacking in these areas, but he does cut a wide swath with his poetry, and when I began to read The Wishing Tomb, I found something much more personal.
From the very beginning of the book, Auchter reveals her command of the single line of verse. Her fragmented stanzas and lines is one of the best examples of confidence I have seen in any of my recent reading. She is able to allow these utterances to stand by themselves, linger, and worm their way into the mind of the reader. When I read the poem "Casket Girls," early on in the book, is when I realized I was in for something really exciting. In a strangely anonymous persona poem, Auchter announces her intent on diving deep with the reader in tow.
We thought the water would never
end. Dark pools of stars
in our faces―
Auchter spend the rest of the first section floating in and out of various persona poems and omniscient observation, slowly transitioning into poems constructed with beautifully written couplets and amazing single lines. "American Plague" is another must-read-again poem in the first section of the book.
Throughout the book, Auchter provides a roving pastoral of the city and its various places. While these locations may be familiar to those who have knowledge of the city, the poet is able to bring a relevance to the reader (such as myself) who has no experience with the city. For those unfamiliar with New Orleans, there is presented here simultaneously the city everyone knows and the city only the poet can describe. The opening lines of the final poem, "Late Pastoral" read:
How beautiful this was in the beginning:
white mulberry, Indian corn, a source
without suffering, without crime.
The blue-white wall of sky above us
and nothing for miles but water,
duckweed, Tupelo gum. It is April . . .
By the end of the second section, Auchter has painted a mural of the city's history, both of familiar and obscure events. I want to meet the characters and people behind these poems. Here in the second section the reader finds the title poem. It's straightforward address, as it takes the reader through a series of traditional/folkish rites, is a reminder of New Orleans' magic, that in this city, "Everything// becomes possible."
If anything is predictable in this collection it is we know the third section will address the recent events and struggles within New Orleans. However, by the time you have read the first two sections, you are prepared to enter the third section having a richer, more complete sense of what New Orleans is---certainly more informed than what many other writers provide when they write about Hurricane Katrina. In fact, The Wishing Tomb can serve to inform most every other poem written about Hurricane Katrina. And being able to inform readers for an entire topic and specific subject matter is a wonderful side effect to contribute. Here, "Fragments of an Aftermath" challenges conventional views of what happened in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina.
The Wishing Tomb is Amanda Auchter's second book of poems and as a poet I envy her confidence and command of the line; however, that isn't why you should read this book. You need to read this book because it is wholly American in its focus and devotion. You need to read this book because Auchter has created something whole, complete, and compelling. You need to read this book so you look beneath the surface of New Orleans with rich and daring language taking you by the hand and leading the way. The Wishing Tomb will not---cannot disappoint.