Book ReviewNight Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range
Reviewed by Julie Gard
New World Finn, Summer 2014
In Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range, Sheila Packa fearlessly explores the Finnish and Northern Minnesota roots of her life and language. Family history, landscape, industry, and the animal world are all essential elements of the poet’s psyche and vocabulary.
In “My Geology,” language is excavated, hard-earned and ﬁercely chosen: “I claim my words from the broken / English, damaged roots, / Finnish syntax and geomagnetic ﬁelds.” Access to language and a place in history is claimed not just for the poet, but for her entire community. Packa’s voice is bold and Whitmanesque in poems like “Zenith City,” which is a playful, polyphonic tribute to Duluth, and “Strange Highway,” which encompasses multiple generations and experiences:
I travelled with the magnetic pull of iron
around river now reservoir now pit
fell on the frozen ground
where horses and carts
carried out logs and carried
in steam shovels
on the Vermillion Trail
This “I” is powerful in its range and inclusivity as the poet claims and unites multiple identities and experiences.
At times the broad, bold scope of the poems narrows to a single perspective, such as in “North Star: “In Hanko, Finland / a young woman boards / the vessel in the Baltic / for a ship across the Atlantic. / The North Star shines in the sky.” A grandmother’s journey begins and so does the poet’s journey, as described in “Old Music,” as “an egg inside an egg.” The long road of adaptation and blending of old and new ways is detailed in this poem: “My grandmother remained at the border / unable to cross into the new language. / She pushed us over.” The poet takes her mother “into the American vernacular, / drive[s] her language to its destination, / play[s] the volume on high / in a minor key, old music.”
Night Train Red Dust is rich with metaphors for writing, for how language, once claimed, can be worked with. In “Blind Pig,” dedicated to the poet Lorine Niedecker, we ﬁnd the poet “[i]n the distillery / underground, / work[ing] to make ruinous / beauty.” Mining itself is both physical reality and metaphor in Packa’s poems, “all excavation” and “working below the surface “ (“Metaphor/The Mine”). Writing is one of many forms of creation and industry.
These poems pay careful attention to animal as well as human experience, often showing their commonalities. For example, the poem “Neighbor,” about a woman abandoned by her husband at the side of the road, appears right before “Grouse,” which is about a bird “along a deserted road,” “between shadow and light.” Fear and endangerment resonate throughout both poems.
Recurring themes of speech and silence are extended to the natural world in “Timber,” where in the voices of wolves, the speaker:
heard not the day’s wind
but the wind of many years
light falling between worlds
into dust and wings
away from motors and wheels
into a strange music for way-ﬁnding
The present is never just the present, and one world leaks into another. Concrete and vivid imagery is often used to capture a sense of impermanence. “The Cost” is a pared-down, resonant poem that describes the transience of all things, including writing itself: “I write myself / in the river, in the wind.” In “Elements,” the speaker loses and ﬁnds herself in forms such as charcoal, light, water, and stone, constantly shape-shifting. The poem “Red Star” links humanity to space and a coffee tin to a “distant star” that is “burning through the elements -- / or giving birth.” The magic and mundane are one.
Altogether, these poems vividly capture personal and collective experience and serve as a powerful example of how a writer can help to shape the identity of a place. The collection ends with haunting traces, silence, and smoke. Language emerges from and disappears into wind, “[e]ven after all the ink” (“Dictate of Wind’), yet Packa’s words leave a lasting impression. As in “Consanguinity,” “Her incantations come.”
Julie Gard is a published poet, and teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin in Superior, Wisconsin. Recently, she learned that her new manuscript is a finalist in the New Rivers Press book competition. Visit her website at http://www.juliegard.com/
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Link to the entire issue: http://www.newworldfinn.com/NWF_PDF/2014_3_NWFc.pdf
For links to order Night Train Red Dust: http://sheilapacka.blogspot.com/2014/05/my-geology.html