Tuesday, January 01, 2008

After that cabin in the woods... : Henrietta Goodman's debut collection, TAKE WHAT YOU WANT

When this North Carolina Piedmont poet migrated to Montana to earn her MFA, she quickly won an artist fellowship -- then was awarded in 2002 the Marjorie Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency. Short version: a cabin in the Oregon woods, without phone or close neighbors. What could be better for writing?

TAKE WHAT YOU WANT (Alice James Books, 2007) is proof that Goodman knew how to use the opportunity. But it wasn't as simple as it sounded, for a single mother who at one point even had her little son staying with her in that cabin. When she writes of her son, she's far from mushy, as the opening from "River Onto River" shows:

The baby has grown out of his newborn
clothes. He clamps my nipple in his gums
and tugs, shakes his head like a dog

with a bone. The day the mountain caught fire,
my husband stood in the street and watched
the plume of smoke grow, the red eye

of flame open.

The husband of the poem was no longer married to Goodman by the time she reached the woods. Her final line of this piece might have been prophecy, though it refers to the baby: "He still cries without tears."

Though the collection probes sensuality, death, the Western landscape and life -- one of my favorites is called "Truckstop Elegy" -- the most poignant pieces are the ones Goodman crafted with the tale of Hansel and Gretel in mind. Lost in the woods, she is at once Gretel and the witch, and the double voice renders depth:


It's true we were abandoned,
though I was older. My parents
were ignorance, propriety.
His were faith. I treated him
like a child at first, praised
his art, refused to let him pay.


we were naked but never innocent.
What did we think would happen?
The trail diverges here, dissolves.
We were not so different
from our parents after all --
so greedy, so willing to yield.

A brother figure haunts the Gretel poems, at times addressed clearly, at other moments notable for absence, as in the poem "Gretel Alone," which concludes, "I am half a story." Then in "Gretel in the Tunnel," Goodman asks, "Brother, why must we enter? / The mountain opens--in the night, / a blacker hole." In her panic, she clutches this "other half" tightly enough to leave nail marks on his arm. The admissions of fear and greed, though, are well balanced by the sensuality of the images and the resonance of song, dance, music. I like especially a non-Gretel piece called "Trees Near Water" that ends,

[...] All I know so far
is what that song wants to do. It wants
to strike you. It wants to give you

your own pain like a gift and make you
glad to take it. It's in accord with the tornado
forming above the fields on the other side

of the river. It wants you to forsake
all others and take this twisting dark body
in your arms and dance.

It's tempting to compare the collection to Sexton's Transformations, because of the Gretel poems, but actually the tang of evil's gloating is absent here; darkness in Goodman's collection comes not from the human heart or its lusts, but rather from tree shadow and mountain hollow. She writes a kinder world than many of us have explored -- may she continue to send forth such postcards from that side of life.

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