As with a forest’s understory—the level of vegetation growing under its canopy—these poems bear the shadows of a darker realm. Informed by myth and archetype, Paulann Petersen’s work grows close to the earth, frequently delving into the chthonic. Occasioned by a wide geography and characterized by a large embrace, Petersen’s work celebrates both the singular and the quotidian, both the sidereal and the earth-bound—including poems for her furrier grandfather, for a revered poet’s first spoken word, for Hinduism’s sensuality, for a star-map painted on deer hide. Here a reader encounters a voice steeped in the music of the English language, a voice intent on the musical possibilities of poetry’s open and nonce forms. In these pages, a reader finds a voice indebted to the power of metaphor—the capacity of metaphor to transform both language itself and the way we humans see this world. Understory is the sixth full-length collection of poems from Petersen, who is Oregon’s sixth Poet Laureate.
All poets draw on myth. In many of her poems, Paulann Petersen writes myth itself—stories and seeings so true you look again and again, and they’re truer.
—John Daniel, author of Of Earth
The poems of Paulann Petersen brim with the brilliance of discovery. She ventures into the recesses of memory; she explores the complexity of nature and human nature; she brings forth the exquisite, lyrical yield. Hers is a poetry of revelation and wonder.
—Lawson Inada, Oregon Poet Laureate Emeritus
About the Author
Oregon’s sixth Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen has five full-length books of poetry: The Wild Awake, Blood-Silk, A Bride of Narrow Escape, Kindle, and The Voluptuary. Her most recent chapbook is Shimmer and Drone, poems about India. She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and the recipient of the 2006 Holbrook Award from Oregon Literary Arts. Petersen serves on the board of Friends of William Stafford, organizing the January Stafford Birthday Events.
Program: Oregon Art Beat
Episode: Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen
Oregon is the one of the few states in the US with a Governor-appointed Poet Laureate. The latest in this long line of distinguished writers is Paulann Petersen. Join Paulann as she travels the state teaching and helping people discover the wonder of the written word.
Review by John Sibley Williams
UNDERSTORY poems by Paulann Petersen
(Lost Horse Press, 2013) 196 pp $21.95
Before even opening Paulann Petersen’s latest collection, Understory, I was greeted with a haunting question: what is an “understory”? My mind raced with potential metaphors, each speaking directly to the core of all Petersen’s works—the unspoken, natural story writhing silently beneath her words. Her poems have always been a digging and an uncovering. And the words she carefully selects to uncover what lies beneath have always been a celebration of humanity and humanity’s part in the world.
But “understory” has another definition also: an underlying layer of vegetation; specifically: the vegetative layer and especially the trees and shrubs between the forest canopy and the ground cover. What better metaphor for Petersen’s poetry than that which grows between the highest, sky-raking trees and the hard earth below our feet? The one word title, so specific in its literal definition, provides the perfect perspective from which to approach this book—there will be glimpses of sparkling firmament and black soil, and the creations of our hands and the interpretations of our eyes will be what brings them together.
Featuring a vast array of natural observations and philosophical inquiries all rooted in acceptance and admiration, Understory’s 140 poems can be seen as Petersen’s magnum opus, her love song to the world, a trail of breadcrumbs for the endless external path that leads us ever closer to ourselves.
In "As if Each Breath Were the Last," Petersen writes:
is a small seed of sky let go,
headed up—each outbound breath
less rich in what my blood
gleans from air, more laden with what
my lungs release.
There are outside forces in our lives, I read into this metaphor, that influence how we perceive ourselves. There is an innate unity of the other and the self, as primal and necessary as breath. We take in the world, translate it, experience it, make it our own, and the world is both changed and unchanged by our touch.
But all this, Petersen says, is something:
I have to give away.
Is this a personal statement or a universal rule of our existence? Does she mean a heart that remains open is always returning what it borrows or is it an unalterable state of humankind to be temporary? Further, does this temporariness imply that we end with our last breath or that in the unity of having lived we are in a sense eternal? In just one short poem I was left with beautifully answerable questions, each that speak to the nature of existence.
Although far reaching in its scope, each pondering in Understory is firmly rooted in tactile images and sensual perception. There are lush colors and monochromatic shadows. We are able to pick up each poem with our flesh and blood hands, understand it, and yet in understanding realize we have never been so far from knowing. Petersen’s world is not one of cement roads and concrete pillars. We are placed on a muddy, forested path, vast canopy overhead through which slices of sky illuminate our steps.
The interconnectedness of experience is perfectly captured in the collection’s first poem, "Daily Cosmology":
A tree names itself Creation, and having done so,
reaches above, yet never breaks
the horizon’s line. Its trunk
makes a vertical road, way for a voyage
Petersen presents us with a self-created world, a self-striving world, capable of independent motivation and action, capable of naming itself. And what it creates is exactly what we endeavor to create—personal ascension. Both by body and by will, by merely existing and by force of resolve, nature becomes our mirror. Petersen speaks to our core beliefs, fears, and dreams by illustrating them in what we traditionally consider “the other”. And in doing so, Petersen makes a bold, quiet claim: there is no “other”.
Be a leaf, learn
to eat with your skin,
swallow sun’s rankness
wherever it strikes you.
So begins "Synesthesia," a poem that speaks directly to the reader, pleading without desperation for a greater understanding of what it means to be one part of a greater whole. Yet, each part is necessary. The tapestry is not just outside us nor can it be defined exclusively from the inside. It bends to our will as we bend to its. And in bending together, nothing breaks.
Each poem in Understory is at heart a song. There is a musicality of language and of themes in every line. At times elegiac, at times celebratory, Petersen’s poems shine with an internal light reminiscent of Octavio Paz’ "The Tree Within."
In "Exhalation," Petersen says:
This alphabet, you say,
is spoken in the order
its sounds come from the body.
Petersen’s introspection is dazzlingly complex. The harmony she exposes in the human elements—body, breath, song, and creation—are so intertwined with natural elements that it’s impossible to clearly delineate where one begins and ends. Is Petersen implying that nothing really ends? Is she making a subtle case for the arbitrariness of walls? The poems never leave us with easy answers. They are paths we must choose to walk on our own terms, toward whatever destination, and it’s my belief that Petersen seeks less the destination than the journey, less the answers than their questions. In fact, I’d argue, she’s not even demanding of us specific questions but more a change in our thought process. She merely asks us to remain open and inquisitive. She reminds us over and again through her grand embrace of darkness and light that the world is interactive, that it exists without us and for us.
In "Letters Toward the End," she connects this vast, circular, questioning world to her own writing process:
I could write a hundred messages more
each ending with the same line
It is up to each of us, in reading Understory, to figure out that last line for ourselves.
John Sibley Williams is the author of Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013) and six poetry chapbooks. He is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award, and finalist for the Pushcart, Rumi, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review, co-director of the Walt Whitman 150 project, and Marketing Director of Inkwater Press. A few previous publishing credits include: Third Coast, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Evansville Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
by Paulann Petersen (Lost Horse Press, 2013)
Review by Ben Waterhouse
Understory, the sixth collection from Oregon’s prolific poet laureate gathers 182 poems from a dozen chapbooks in a hefty volume. These poems showcase Petersen’s talent for picking out the smallest details—a stitch, a brushstroke, a drop of water—in travels, myth, the routine of everyday life, and wringing insight from them.
http://oregonhumanities.org/magazine/issue/skin/ FAR CORNER READER BOOKS AND BOOK REVIEWS. THE WRITING AND READING LIFE. TUESDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2013
On Paulann Petersen's Understory
FAR CORNER READER: BOOKS AND BOOK REVIEWS: THE WRITING AND READING LIFE: October 15, 2013
by Paulann Petersen
Lost Horse Press
2013, 182pp., $21.95
At more than 180 pages, Oregon Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen’s new book, Understory, offers readers an uncommon heft and promise in nine sections. As its opening poem suggests, it remarkably makes and remakes “a voyage of ascent.”
Two principles govern these poems. One is attention; the other is community. Reading these poems inculcates those principles, those habits—habits which would make any of us better people if we took them to heart. Attention encourages connection, and community requires it. Thus a good number of these poems begin in steady, patient observation, as in “Be a leaf, learn / to eat with your skin, / swallowing sun’s rankness / wherever it strikes you”—the opening stanza of “Synesthesia.”
What’s so modestly but surely pleasurable in this example is the surprise from line to line. What can you learn if you’re a leaf? Sunlight would be an obvious answer. The poem offers, however, how to “eat with your skin.” Oh, yes, I see—that’s one way to describe photosynthesis. This sort of surprise (surprise being always the antithesis of cliché) comes from a sure and unforced speaking voice as well as from a writer of uncommon perception, one who also knows how to elect lining and pace accurate to the material and the effects she seeks. Here’s the last stanza of that same short poem: “Savor light, that mother / to every sweetness. / Become the bee’s green sister, / the one who can taste / this world with her hands.” Sometimes just a preposition can make all the difference, as here, in the difference between what we might expect—a bee tasting the world on her hands—and what the poem gives us—a bee tasting the world with her hands.
Petersen also knows that appearances can be deceptive and that most of the time a larger and often invisible complexity informs them. Thus, in “Shape-Shifter,” the speaker sees and meets the mother of a woman getting married. The bride’s mother “wears her long gray hair pulled away / from her bone-shadowed face . . .” and she says to the speaker “Kate is my daughter.” Only later does the speaker learn that this woman was once a man, “her father, / now a woman, . . . / changed as a shaman might change / to be able to step near the spirits / without frightening them away.” Indeed, these poems also carry this same wish—to be able to observe and stay in patient questioning of what one sees—to try often to step near the spirits without frightening them away.
While Understory is a large book, its division into nine sections effectively mediates what might be a somewhat daunting first impression. Section II, for example, makes a sequence of poems invoking a girl’s memory of her parents: “I’m still that girl / hungry for her father’s talk,” and finding it, finding him “caught on a minute of shining / magnetic tape. On the wide-cast / net of longing” as this father’s voice speaks of how, once, he and other hired hands rode ponies “strung a Montana river,” dragging a net “behind them / through snow-melt, / seining for fish.” Nostalgia informs these poems, yet they’re also tinged with something akin to disbelief, a wonder that how what is gone is not gone, not quite, perhaps not at all. How does this work, ask the poems in this section. How does story-telling (a mother telling a story of her daughter, for example, when you’re the daughter, as in “Perspective”)—how does this speaking the past back into the present, how might this action make identity and, perhaps, wisdom? How does it hold something as slippery, valuable, and elusive as love’s tenderness, unselfishness, comfort, vividness, ache, and grief?
Even a brief discussion of Understory such as this is must include this book’s broad sweep of country and culture, as, for example, in Part 4, titled “Shimmer and Drone.” Here we read poems based in an experience of India, a place quite different in history, culture, and weather from Paulann Petersen’s Pacific Northwest.
For a writer steeped in observation of landscape, such travel must offer daily and arresting experiences of what has not been known before. Even the moon looks different: “. . . upturned, / filling a late dusk’s violet-blue. / It’s a calligrapher’s single stroke / for and, and that curving sweep / from the Arabic pen—/ the word that’s written before all others, / a symbol that beckons us / to listen” (in “Beginning with And”). Here and in other poems like this one, Petersen the Northwesterner, Petersen the American, engages cultures deep with historical record, making her poems acts of encounter with what is other and sacred, from beggars to statues to an unfamiliar humidity and warmth. Here, as everywhere in this book, a fiercely deep curiosity works insistently to orient itself in settings at once unfamiliar and hence the opposite of mundane: ". . . A story begins with And. / Because it has never / ended, will never have to end." ("Beginning with And")
Paulann Petersen is now in her second term as Oregon Poet Laureate. Many of the poems in this book depend on and work from this Northwest locus. But finally, Understory becomes a book large with—and informed by—a keenly attentive generosity that transcends the regional. In terms of landscape, the book takes readers to Oregon, certainly, but also to places in India, Greece, and Turkey, to the paintings of Renoir (themselves their own places), and always to places of attention, places of the spirit, and to experiences that might (as the poem “Mechanistics” phrases it) “Be our answer / to what we believe we need, / be what we design.”
Be a leaf, learn
to eat with your skin,
swallowing sun’s rankness
wherever it strikes you.
Savor light, that mother
to every sweetness.
Become the bee’s green sister,
the one who can taste
this world with her hands.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulann Petersen