The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths
70 pp., Jacar Press
Sandy Longhorn, in her second collection of poetry, The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, continues to focus her poetry on America’s Midwest. As the title suggests, this time around Longhorn addresses how stories and myths enter our consciousness, specifically those relating to the feminine. What is important to note here is the care Longhorn places in the structure of the book as well as the structure of each poem. This book is not merely a collection of like-minded poems; it is a carefully made book, sewn from the cloth of Midwestern psyche which seems to color the collective American identity.
Caution is at the top of Longhorn’s priorities, mixing contemporary stories which inform with those which warn the reader of what has come before and what lies ahead. Poems not only explain how myths are created, they take on the physical appearances of the things they discuss. In the early poem, “Midwest Nursery Tales” we read how myth is created, how it is structured and institutionalized into our very awareness. It does not matter if we accept the story as fact because we all have heard a version of the story. The revelation comes in the shared, almost instant recognition of such stories and the incredibly stark and beautiful manner Longhorn is able to write it. Only two pages later in “Naming the Storm,” then again with “The Once-Winged Saint,” Longhorn mimics on the page with ease the patterned destruction of a storm and then the patterned beating of wings. This care brings a physical elegance to the poems contained within these pages.
The high points of this book are the wide range of cautionary tales set before the reader, and Longhorn is able to sustain these moments throughout the book. There seems to be a cautionary story, tale, or myth for every occasion and rightly so. The reader will marvel at the completeness of this book, how varied and far reaching the poems can be. One need not be from the Midwest, not even a woman to feel a connection somewhere in these poems. For me, it began a long time ago when I first read the poem, “Fairy Tale for Girls in Love with Fire.” The poem begins:
It began in a year of drought. The horizon
caught fire and the eldest girl fell
for the smell of smoke, craved the heat
of flame and ember. Every adult tried
to hold her back from running toward
the leaping fervor. Every adult prayed
she’d tire of fighting her way through
the parched corn stalks, the ears now dry
in their flaking husks, prayed her throat
would fill with smoke and she’d turn back
to douse herself with water.
As many of the poems in this book do, this poem allows the reader to believe in what is familiar, only to move in an entirely original direction, as is literally done here between the first and second stanzas.
While this book is primarily concerned with the mythology of the feminine, it would be a mistake to say the book succeeds on this point alone. In the final section of the book, Longhorn takes the reader on a detour, relates a personal narrative occasionally alluded to in the previous sections. She is, herself as it turns out, both author of this book and one of the tales. The experiences she brings forth in the final section are the culmination of everything that has come before, everything she has learned by hearing those tales. Here we see how the stories end, the solemnity of observance, and the finality of becoming an integral portion of the prairie.
My admiration for Sandy Longhorn’s poetry is no secret, and I am certain I am not alone in my praise. Longhorn’s poetry is, as I stated earlier, elegant and clearly expressed. It takes a lot of effort and talent to make poems such as these, poems which are vivid, precise expressions from within a brilliant mind regarding a world which will be entirely new after having read them. You owe it to yourself to go out and purchase this book of poems. I can hardly think of any other conclusion than you falling in love with this wonderful book and thereby planting the seeds of anticipation for more of this kind of myth.