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Review of The River Where You Forgot My Name by Corrie Williamson

Southern Illinois University Press/Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Paperback, 80 pages. $15.95.

By Melissa Kwasny

“A poem can be said to have two subjects,” Richard Hugo states in his collection of essays on writing, The Triggering Town, “the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean.” For Hugo, the trigger was often a working class town that had seen better days, much like White Center, Washington, where he grew up. The trick in getting to the real subject of the poem, he advises, is being willing to leave the triggering subject behind.

Corrie Williamson, as she tells us in the endnotes to her new book of poetry, The River Where You Forgot My Name, was born and raised in Fincastle, Virginia, a small town in Appalachia. Julia Hancock, who married the explorer William Clark at age sixteen, was also born in Fincastle, albeit more than two hundred years earlier, in 1791. Both found themselves moving to the West as young women, Julia to Missouri after Clark returned from his journey with Meriwether Lewis, Williamson to Montana. These shared circumstances are certainly triggers for Williamson; indeed, she has arranged the book so that the poems ferry back and forth across the centuries in sections that alternate between Julia’s and the poet’s point of view.

For those of us who have lived in the West for decades, the romance of Lewis and Clark’s journey of “discovery” has become a bit shopworn and in need of revision, especially regarding the genocide it ushered in for indigenous peoples. As a newcomer, Williamson is inspired by much of this history: Lewis’s list of expedition supplies, excerpts from the journals, the naming of Gates of the Mountains and the Judith River. Yet what makes these poems resonate is how Williamson departs from the nominal subject, from those great stories written by and about men. Julia, and in turn, Williamson, watch from the circumference, their attention drawn to the interstices—lives of birds and animals, mothers and children, and the emotional toll of loneliness and illness on women—providing a far different ledger of accounts.

In a poem about the 1812 earthquakes, Julia describes the chimneys falling ““like wasps’ nests // broomed from eaves.” When speaking of Lewis’s suicide, she begins with the “horse pistol’s/ three bullets flaring like a tuning fiddle squall,” but quickly turns to her real subject. Addressing her husband, she says, “You mourn him more than most, but my mind / returns daily to the dog, the steadying breath / of him, his weight like fast water against the legs,” the dog who will be “shipwrecked by fidelity.” Unsaid is the idea that her life may have been, too. In one of my favorite poems, “Science Lesson,” Julia learns that the moon is imprisoned in an orbit, not making its own choices, as she had assumed: “What a little fool to think the moon / free & unheeled.” It is clear the girl-child had higher expectations both for the moon and for herself: “ Of course a larger force compels her.” Though the moon is beautiful, and beautifully described here, “violet as a turnip in a tin bucket,” it is a disappointment that she is “caught there, snared in her / cistern of blue moss & mirrored fire.”

It is the lost notes, the unnamed or named over, the overlooked, that the women ponder. In the title poem, Clark names the Judith River for the child-bride he hopes to marry when he returns, not knowing enough about her to even know it isn’t the name she is called by. In a poem “Gates of the Mountains,” the speaker thinks about the original Missoouri’s currents, vanquished by all the dams along its path, hoping that “Perhaps some lost note / is held in echo where the cliffs // fold tightest.” In considering the scientific explanations for the solitary whale named 52 Hertz because of the strange frequency with which it sings, the poet asks, “Dear cetologists: Have you considered the possibility the whale is singing into silence, into a trembling in his own bones?” Hiking a portion of the Lewis and Clark Trail, the poet informs us of a rather unromantic clue archaeologists use to determine the corps’ exact route: finding “bright shards of mercury” in places where the men must have shat, the metal a cure Lewis prescribed for almost everything.

The voices twin, Julia’s slightly more formal, Williamson’s full of internet news, and yet both finely-tuned to their own careful musicality. The craft is elegant, honed. Williamson clearly has a high regard for language as implement, and, in fact, many poems are written about tools. Of reapers, she writes of how “snarling their blades against /grindstones in a flurry / of deadly sparks,” they work before entering the field, their “scythes like a flock of steel / birds.” In a poem titled “Ode to the Come-Along,” one can feel the palpability of language, its usefulness and grit: “Unspooling / the chainlink / choker, I drape a necklace / around the smooth / gray throat of maple.” Julia describes her own cancer, from which she died in her twenties, with such precision that the sharpness of observation becomes a kind of tenderness: “quick, slick chisel / unchinking the body’s cornerstones.”

To leave the triggering subject behind, Hugo writes, the poet’s allegiance must be turned from a strict adherence to meaning to the sound of words themselves: “You are after those words you can own and ways of putting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obsessive musical deed.” In a poem called “Hymn to distance,” Julia thinks of the fox who can hear a vole at a hundred yards and wonders “For what stirrings / am I attuned?” The answers in this absorbing and intimate book are well worth listening to.