Thursday, November 01, 2007


Like water traveling home

I recently read Indian Trains by Erika T. Wurth, book of poems published this fall by West End Press. (It can be ordered through the University of New Mexico Press website, here). I love the book. Reading it, I was continuously swept away by the tenderness, the raw honesty, the gritty toughness and deeply alive heart in Wurth's poems.

Many of the poems in the book speak from moments in close-up living with family and friends and lovers. Wurth's writing feels breathlessly free of hesitation; like young horses turned loose, her poems say what they need to say without reaching for ornament or artifice. Often the poems resemble prose paragraphs on the page, or move easily between carefully chosen poem line endings to flowing longer lines that seem not to want to end. Poems like wind over the plains.

In every poem of Wurth's I feel a living heart beating, fearless in opening to intimacy and pain. From the first section of "Stretching into Me," a five part poem near the beginning of the book:

It's 1947 and he has them all in the closet. He will punish his mother
who left him alone, who he worships above all other. Mother.

Whose arranged marriage at 15 left him for dead. Drunk, his father walked up those old
porch steps and kicked her in the stomach. She left and went home to grandmother.

Annie James: traditional whorehouse woman, who worshiped Mary, Yussun and
the American dollar equally. She was a woman who owned her own heart.

But she could never understand her granddaughter's urge for a different kind of drum.
Grandmother sang the blues, her voice low and speaking to all of America's sides.

And from later in the same poem:

It's 1966, and a man is leaning on her shoulder, kicking up
and she's looking into his face, his mask a mask.

Everyone's in costume, she is Pocahontas,
her dark face lighting up with the joke.

It's Texas, and beautiful, the desert stretching out like a cat
towards the sun, the sun like her mother now, missing her.

She dances and teaches school, her arms poetic, the children know
what they're seeing. This is the child of Apache gangsters, Chickasaw traditionalists.

For my mother, those days were like the days of her childhood,
leaning in, she and her siblings rapt, listening to the radio,
eyes closed and the volume up, everything like the cat, like the desert, like the cat
stretching into the desert, stretching into me.

The poems are sometimes almost startling in their brevity, as though the poet has suddenly burst open with something that demands to be said and heard. "I want our lives to be a fancydance," Wurth says in the poem "Time to Dance," "for every Indian to run straight into the imagination without stopping for a drink first. I want my entire family to say no to the 9-5, say no to midnight special [...] and to say fuck you to anybody that tells them that now is not the time to dance."

I feel a quiet mix of gentle humor and lyrical grace in the poem "Mama, Don't Let Your Quarterbreeds Grow Up To Be Cowboys":

So beautiful, these cowboys who aren't cowboys
boys I've known from a distance, their hands rough
and tender.

Their bodies are like the horses' bodies, wet and newly born
in the sun, and the dust and the heat, their arms exact, their legs
fancydancing, squaredancing, dancing in between.

It's all about that moment, that rope around the neck,
that flash of tail, that broken horse that breaks so that it can move
the way that makes the audience rise and hold their arms out in prayer.

They move, their arms pulling tight, their arms wearing secrets
Crazyhorse tattoos under their shirts, filled with spirit, filled
with the knowledge of death, running always with the horses

Like children running through the fields
running their hands through the flowers, running

Like the rush of groundwater, sweet strains of memory, of sadness and beauty and unbroken love run through all of Wurth's poems, present like a common spoken idiom. More than in the work of any other poet I've ever read, her poems feel like the speaking voice of a human heart. Approaching like a piece of conversation, her poems invite, as they go on whatever road they've found to travel.

I stagger in through the distance and wait for the bus to pull in,
the dust from the old seats filling the lungs of all the others on this silver bus,
knowing that I'll remember everything about your hands,
the memory moving through the air and filling the other Skins on the bus with electricity.
It hurts almost as much as where the Ute fell asleep on my shoulder,
her dreams mingling with the sweat-stained cushions, a moment of tribal reconciliation
but she doesn't know what I've done with you by the side of a mountain,
your white hands coursing down my body like water traveling home.

(From the poem "Leaving Durango.')

It may be that somewhere, in the poetry-industrial complex, among the catacombs of English departments, there may be people who might feel put off by a book such as this one, which moves without excess concern for fine literary devices, poetry that understands that the traditions of this world are many, and that some of them flourish in places other than lecture halls and conference rooms and dusty shelves. To the Bushes and Cheneys and Rices of the academic "literary" world, we can extend our sorrow, and move on. They've missed the train.

The will and the heart to go on, no matter what the pain, no matter how deep the hardship, the capacity to continue loving, the understanding that we can, as human beings, live together on this earth, if we open our hearts to the possibility: all this speaks to me in Erika Wurth's poems. I'll go back and read her poems again and again.

In the poem "Cannot Be Moved West," Wurth describes "driving forever in my old orange bronco/every moment knowing that I could break down" -- and she continues:

She'd sat beside me for years in that car, living in that trailer, her mother talking story
with her GPC cigarettes in her old Apache/Cherokee hands, the apple tree in back, Pink Floyd
in the tape deck, her hair thick and dark, an Indian promise but for what, I know the boys
who loved her never knew.

We drove past the same baseball field again and again in Idaho Springs, until the cops
were called. We drove through the fields in Denver and always got stuck. We drove to
every boyfriend she ever had and we are still in that car, I know it.

Misty, how I want that final destination, that tiny space inside the heart, that tiny bit
of unmovable love that thing that cannot be touched cannot be moved West.

I'm going to have to stop reading your posts. I always end up spending more money:-)
I second what Pris said. Another book to put on my shopping list. Sigh.

(And thanks!)

(You rock!)
Dear Lyle,
I'm the editor of a magazine published in Italy in two
separate editions, in English (as "Here-Notes from the Present"), and in
Italian. (You can find it at In the next issue I'd like to publish two poems by
Ritsos, but I have only their Italian translations. The poems are "Departures I" and "Departures II", from "Gestures". Well, I bought the book (with the Stango's translation) via Amazon, but they say it could arrive to me, in Italy, as late as next June, and I need the poems by 15th May. Could you help me? If you have the Stango's translations, or if you translated
yourself those poems, could you be so kind and send them to me by e-mail? If you'd like to see a copy of my review on paper, I'll be glad to send it to you. My e-mail address is Thanks, and best regards, Massimo Parizzi
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