Some of my favorite poetry collections are those that immerse the reader in a single topic — Kevin Young's exploration of grief Book of Hours, say, or Thomas Lynch's The Sin-eater: A Breviary. That's not to say that a good spray of eclectic poems isn't enjoyable — like anyone else, I love a good left turn into a horny love poem after a particularly dark elegy.
But a collection that centers around a single topic is a distinct pleasure. It informs and educates a reader like great journalism. It envelops the reader's mind with a distinct perspective like a novel. It focuses a reader's attention the way a good teacher does — by investigating a single subject through a variety of approaches and lenses and understandings. Whenever I encounter one of these collections, I immediately want to find five more just like it. Unfortunately, they're fairly rare occurrences in the poetry world — not quite a unicorn, say, but maybe a bird spotted wildly out of season.
If you read my interview with her, you know that Seattle poet (and Seattle Review of Books poet in residence for September of this year) Sierra Golden's debut collection of poems, The Slow Art, is an example of an immersive book of poetry.
“I spent eight summers working in a commercial fishing boat in southeast Alaska,” she told me, “and that became the focal point of most of my writing for a really long time.” Her father worked on a commercial fishing vessel, and she loved the physical labor and spending time outdoors. Unlike the long and iterative process of writing, she told me, fishing offers "really immediate feedback. Either you catch or you don’t.”
So here's some immediate feedback: The Slow Art is a catch. It's a haul. It's a groaning net.
Golden puts you right onto the ship, surrounded by the busy work of fishing. There's all kinds of great detail work in a poem titled "Leftovers" about a vessel coming to life in the morning:
The skipper's kids
hide and seek behind
a stack of crab pots
But this isn't just a list of things that Golden sees. She combines reality and fantasy in a perfect segue:
A wet mop slops
across the sky, and
the rain begins again.
It's a beautiful transition, from the ritual swabbing of the decks to a very particular kind of grey rainfall.
These are poems about seemingly every detail that Golden took in on the ship, from a piece about bed bug infestation that will leave readers mindlessly scratching at their arms as they read ("Little beasts, pin/puncture mouths. Ache.") to an ode to the rockfish's sacrifice ("I've killed a hundred with barbed hooks, stars/strung on a line fine as a spider's...")
One of my favorite poems in the book, "Town Day," is about a fisherman who arrives in a town only to learn that the town dump, "a mile outside town, is the only place with cell service." And so, in search of the voice of "his one sweetheart," he clomps past the promise of "hot showers" in town to the "eldritch calls of ravens/scavengings bones and beer cans," so that "invisible/waves" can "carry his tin voice/across vast land..." It's a recasting of Odysseus for a digital age, but it doesn't feel banal or small. The sailor who pines for someone far away is just as potent a figure as it's ever been.
Golden is a gifted poet, and in her debut collection her words feel as certain as someone working on her twelfth book. I could stack row after row of quotes here for you to see, mining the book until it's empty, but that would do Golden a disservice. The pleasure of The Slow Art is the narrative that it builds, the story of these (mostly) men and the ocean that torments and rewards them. A 400-page novel could not be as immersive as this narrow collection.
As with the best works, Golden drills into the specific until she finally cracks the surface of the universal. As I write this, the week after one of the most disheartening weeks in America since the 2016 elections, I keep coming back to one stanza in "Appetite," a poem about finding a groaning raspberry bush "In the gravel parking lot/behind the blue laundromat."
This stanza, as the overenthusiastic headline writers at BuzzFeed used to gush, is everything:
Each day someone does something
worse to another so what
would it matter if I ate
all the raspberries alone?
Who in this great big city of ours hasn't had that thought over the last few days? Who hasn't stared down at that pint of ice cream, that bottle of whiskey, that overflowing bucket of vice, and thought that in a world so cruel, why not just hoover up all the good things all at once, all by ourselves? It's only going to get worse, right? We're only going to get worse?
The rest of The Slow Art answers that question for us. People are people, yes. We are fallible and prone to all the weaknesses that befall bodies. The universe is a roiling and unknowable ocean. But if we wake up early, and if we mop the decks until they shine, and if we tie the knots just so, and if we work together the way we always have, maybe we'll find something good and true and real, and maybe that will sustain us just long enough to wake up and do it all over again.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant