[Edit: This review has been reprinted in the Lily Poetry Review Vol. 1 Issue 1: Winter 2019, edited by Eileen Cleary, alongside several of July’s poems. What a true delight!]
In our age so badly in need of transparency and of plain language it is important for me to note the following facts:
July Westhale and I are graduates of the same MFA program, though we did not to my knowledge overlap at all in attendance
I received my copy of her collection Trailer Trash (2018, Kore Press) for free, from her, on the day we met
She gave it to me out of the kindness of her own human heart, and with no expectation that I would review it in print or online
What follows may also be factual; it is, more importantly, true.
Let's start with the cover image, this arresting photo of a bird, one leg banded with a silvery cuff. It lies inverted, cruciform, beak pointed to the viewer's left, seemingly dead. Of course, we invent the context as we view the cover, with this image floating over the title (Trailer Trash in red) and the author's name (July Westhale, in grey that matches the grey image of the bird.) When I first saw it I was startled, discomfited, and immediately suffused with complex reactions rooted in my symbol-dominated Irish Catholic upbringing. I still don't know what to make of this roiling up of half-remembered ideas and fears, tamped down for so long. What I do know is that the epigraph from Flannery O'Connor didn't dispel this connection.
Westhale's collection opens with an ars poetica that establishes the idea that identity is not only innate, but also may be chosen:
One would like to see oneself walking through the forest as two girls,
along a creek, the golden carp under the ice like blurred poppies.
The tall, hooded girl will extend a basket, offering bread and water, a kindly
face and a thick cloak.
The other is small, with sly hands. She will eat her fill, wrap herself
in the warmth of the wool cloak, cut a branch from a tree.
Whittling the end to a point, she will pull the arrow back, and shoot it
into the throat of the hooded girl. She will retrieve the basket.
The innate qualities (the tall girl is tall, the other girl is small, and both are products of the poet's longing, of her imagination) are inarguable. The choice for the small girl to become (to invent?) murder and robbery is mysterious. It is my hope that undergraduate English majors will spend years discussing the meaning of the relationship described in these 8 lines, tracing out the web of fairy tales and femmes fatale that precede Westhale's ars poetica in existence, and whose shadows enrich it.
Westhale's ability to understand multiple selves suffuses this collection. Realities of gender and sexuality and class are as vital to these poems as the landscape. In fact, they join together in a sort of inescapable terroir that the poems carry with them out of time, out of Westhale's native California, and into the reader's understanding.
I don't know exactly how far Blythe, California, is from where Larry Levis grew up, but I find some of Westhale's work to be complementary to poems (particularly those in Winter Stars) about Levis' upbringing, about his father. Westhale's complex relationship with her mother (and her mother's absence) resonates with Levis' writing in a wonderful way. As I was reading Trailer Trash I found myself understanding more of Levis (and of my own poems about my own mother) through the precise manner through which July renders her own relationship with the world that lacks her mother. In “Night On Memory's Convoy, Or, Ohio”, for example, the poet makes plain her quest:
I know nothing of Ohio, only
that it's a place I have not searched,
that remains unturned. Here and everywhere,
your face fogs the glass: a sudden, shifting bog.
In memory, you and I have wintered
every December's petulant tantrum,
and we have missed the breaking blossoms
of milestone and notches. I wait
for you every season to arrive.
You must be exactly like Ohio,
This lyrical meditation on unknowing, rooted in the persistence of memory and the inescapable aspects of absence, establishes the poet's emotional geography as being uncharted, like her Ohio, where even seasons do not fill the open space, where milestones are missed. The departed mother is unknown, “exactly like Ohio”, and the poem concludes with the poet waiting, hoping that the departed mother “will come back,/that this heartland will someday thaw.” Such self-aware grief over those who are lost is one of the particular elements that constitute the terroir of this book, becoming as much a part of it as the dust and fields of the Inland Empire.
Dust and grief are not the only important aspects of this collection – there is also a lushness to the language with which Westhale describes relationships, language that sometimes makes use of religious elements, as in the haunting “Conversation Among Dirt Before Rain”, and sensual sonic effects, as in “After Time Has Rumpled The Sheets Of Your Mouth”. That these two poems arrive in sequence in the book is, to me, a brilliant piece of meta-rhetoric. “Conversation” places the reader in a heightened, almost ecstatic (at least in the sense of ex stasis) state, with litany-like effects (“Let us begin.”, “Praise sun, praise roof, praise angles of light/in solemn passing, that penetrate our church.”) that recall, and call to, elements of religious services, and with recast elements of the religious ordering of the world (“Our bargain pews”, “a ministry calling all further missionaries/to stagnant dark, where all mishaps turn/appalling and sinful –“). This is just one of the poems in which Westhale makes use of resonances with Christian imagery and the theological imagination.
Meanwhile, the experience of reading “After Time...” thrusts the reader back into the body – even reading silently the assonance and consonance of this poem beg the reader's sonic imagination to the forefront, and it glides forward under the momentum of its sonic leaps and pirouettes. Here, try reading it our loud and pay attention to the way your mouth moves as you form the words:
After Time Has Rumpled The Sheets Of Your Mouth
When I am winter, shutting privately down in my own deep snow,
allow me solace in stinking rooms of books, typewriters cold and dressed
for procession. Great old ghosts grousing on stairwells, tumblers in cuff
and not a kind word on their paper lips. Allow me mercy in my frozen
thicket, where parties will have come to call and left to hibernate, leaving behind
small tracks of silent pears, tepid angels in wakeful repose.
& allow me comforts – sliced quince, an avocado churned by a spoon,
port in crystal tasting of exquisite girls, black cherries, a photograph smoldering
magenta. Leave me hopeful for another. Waiter! Another.
Do you notice the motions of your mouth and tongue as you make the sounds that make up the poem? How the Ws of “When I am winter” begin the poem at a low point, lacking for breath, and carry that feeling through “down in my own deep snow”, leaving that first line to feel like the silence of a heavy snowfall? The next line starts down with “allow”, but moves quickly to harder consonants – the staccato beats of “stinking” and “books” and “cold”, the music of the word “typewriter” acting as contrapuntal balance to the soft S of “solace” and “dressed”. That soft S wraps around to the third line, in “procession” and “ghosts” and “grousing” and “stairwells” and “tumblers”, but Westhale doesn't let the S dominate, doesn't let it collapse the line into just more breath exhaling. Instead she brilliantly punctuates it with hard Gs (“Great old ghosts grousing”) and quick exhales of a short U (“tumblers in cuff”.)
These sonic fireworks continue through the poem, which really rewards reading aloud. Reading it aloud also brings to life the half-internal semi-soliloquy aspects – the audience for the speaker of the poem isn't just the speaker and the reader, but there's some movement (mysterious though it may be) to reveal that this is a shared space, that the speaker is not shut “privately down in [her] own deep snow”, but is instead able to interact with a waiter, and we're left to wonder at the drama of it all.
It is a struggle to not simply go through this book providing close readings of every poem, to praise the wit and inventiveness on display, to shout in accompaniment to the moments of deep resonance that occur in poems like “There Is No Room For Jesus In This City”, which makes deft use of a rhetorical maneuver that is as startling as it is effective:
All day long the buildings sleep, and dream of the people in them.
When the sun shrugs its shoulders into the horizon,
the world is full and the evening that passes, promising.
I was lying just then. There is nothing hopeful
about being a bringer of light. What do I know of cities? Urbanity
makes a mess of skies, leaving stoplights scabbing overhead.
The reversal of our expectations, set as solidly as the buildings and as reliably as the sun in that first stanza, has the effect of pulling the rug out from under us as readers. We are lowered, slowly, into a darkness that is “promising” in a world that is “full”, and then told that nothing is what it seems. The world's ugliness is brought into sharp relief, and the reader must either trust or not trust the speaker – who is the only voice speaking in this poem. And this voice continues to speak throughout the poem with an authority almost Biblical in nature – certainly the poem is awash with references to Judeo-Christian scripture, but in Westhale's hands these references bridge the experience of the Divine and the human. Of course, there's also the sly reference to Lucifer, “bringer of light”, associated with Satan in contemporary usage, that underpins the ironic turn to darkness.
Westhale's work is full of these layers, freighted with meaning and connected through wit. Read Trailer Trash, and then re-read it. See what changes. My money's on you.