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SEED WHEEL
APRICOTS OF DONBAS
Masquerade
ECCENTRIC DAYS OF HOPE AND SORROW
The River People  
|
  Polly Buckingham

ISBN 978-1-7333400-7-6     $18  /  $$24 (Canada)     5.5” x 8.5"       

92 pp      
PUB DATE: September 2020       Poetry





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AuthorPhotoThe poems in The River People, Polly Buckingham’s debut collection, move through dream landscapes and natural landscapes exploring connection and loss, abundance and degradation, the personal and the political. The speaker in these poems is often in a state of not knowing that can be both terrifying and revelatory. It is a state in which windows and doors connect the living and the dead and the inner and outer landscapes. The River People is organized in four sections that move from Florida to the Pacific Northwest. The poems are heavily imagistic and reminiscent of the deep image poetry and Spanish surrealism.

“Polly Buckingham’s terse lyrics, semi-biographical journeys and glittering elegies, rich with the surreal fabric of nightmare and dream, open in the mind strange doors through which affection, fear, grief, playfulness, and wonder enter the world. In “Potting Roses,” she tells us: “I suppose this is the peace/after a summer rain/ when mist rises above the roses/and the white faces/of angels dissipate.” The River People offers dozens of such moments, all of them crafted by a mature emotional and technical range rarely found in first collections of poems, and I am grateful that this book now lives and breathes among us.”

—Christopher Howell 

It’s about time a book of Polly Buckingham’s striking poems has come out, to join with her award-winning fiction. The poems have been around for years and are gathered here in a delightful first collection. Although her work falls in with surrealists like Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the poems are nailed down by crystal clear imagery. “After You’re Gone” is typical, starting with “I’m standing in the refrigerator light/ pouring water into a blue glass/when a white van pulls up.” In poem after poem, the mystery builds. A fine introduction to an original and serious poet.

—Peter Meinke

About the Author

Polly Buckingham

PBPolly Buckingham teaches at Eastern Washington University. She is the editor of Willow Springs magazine and founding editor of StringTown Press. Author of The Expense of a View (Katherine Anne Porter Award, 2016) and A Year of Silence (Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, 2014) and recipient of a fellowship from Artist Trust Washington, her poetry and short stories appear in The Gettysburg Review, Threepenny Review, The Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

Awards

REVIEWS

MATT BRIGGS REVIEWS POLLY BUCKINGHAM'S THE RIVER PEOPLE

The River People by Polly Buckingham
Poetry • ISBN 978-1-7333400-7-6
Lost Horse Press
www.losthorsepress.org
2020, paperback, 80 pages, $18.00

The narrator of Polly Buckingham's first collection of poetry, The River People, writes in solitude. She is alone. Some poems sound as if the narrator confesses to me; they have a voice I hear as a whisper in my ear. However, these poems feel as if they occur as memories. These are not an immediate account of things that have happened. They are instead distant snapshots of spaces, images, as transitory as slipping from sleep to wakefulness, from nonexistence to oblivion. In “Between Waking and Rising,” the narrator says, “Each day I move through / a falling.” Yet this suchness isn’t isolated to just the poems but their context as well. These are poems that might have been overheard in a venue that is no longer around, read in a literary magazine that has long since stopped publication. In recalling something that happened a while ago, the narrator doesn't talk about what happened but focuses on the space where things have happened. In “Here in the White Room,” the narrator says, “I hold up my hands / where I have seen his face, / but my palms slap ceiling.”

SOMEHOW THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE HERE ARE NOT ON TREND, NOT COUNTED, AS IF THEY ARE NOT VISIBLE WHILE THEY SHOP IN THE FORGOTTEN CHAIN STORE OR DRIVE ALONG THE ABANDONED HIGHWAY.

The poems often take place in the old town. By old town, I mean the part of town where there are junk stores filled with the discards from estate sales of a population who no longer lives there. In Florida, the narrator visits a Bodega named Aunt Lolly's Grocery, a discount grocery store named Mr. C's, and lives in apartments with loose ceiling fans and cracked bathroom tiles. Later the narrator is in Astoria, Oregon, and with its Victorians, the entire town is thrift stores, forgotten chain stores, the shell of a once thriving port town. To say “forgotten chain store” is along the lines of saying “abandoned highway.” Public spaces are populated and hardly empty but somehow the people who live here are not on trend, not counted, as if they are not visible while they shop in the forgotten chain store or drive along the abandoned highway. These poems are this existence as a state of mind.

The people of the poems are reduced to circles, masks, moon faces. Two figures, a girl and a boatman, have “a cartoon face.” The narrator sees “a thin woman with a moon face,” and a “ghost with a white disc face.” In the title poem, the narrator describes people as not having a shine in their eyes, but as “the shine in a dead man's eye.”

The flat, disc like moon and its ashen white is the most common image in the book. In a book of 6,500 words, the word “white” occurs twenty-one times. White is the tenth most common word in the text, after words such as “a” and “the.” The word appears in The River People twice as often is it does in Moby Dick. Melville writes about white in his chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale,” such as: “Lima has taken the white veil; and there is a higher horror in this whiteness of her woe. Old as Pizarro, this whiteness keeps her ruins forever new; admits not the cheerful greenness of complete decay; spreads over her broken ramparts the rigid pallor of an apoplexy that fixes its own distortions.”

The narrator's white is a similar chalky, pongy, fungal color. This is the white of fruit mold, rings of dust, and blooms of algae. The narrator notes:

I hid my face in the leaves and
dreamed about stucco houses
overrun by cats and wisteria.
Bleached scallop shells
and bone whites and dollars blazed
in the shafts of light.

Her white is the color of vast distances and dirty bathroom sinks. It is a white of absence. In this world, “the streets are death with an / empty white face.”

As I think about the experience of reading this set of poems, it was a pleasant experience, and yet I was increasingly haunted by the delicate nihilism of the narrator. She said, “I drink wine all day / and the world slips / into place.”

I used to go to a diner in downtown Everett that closed at six. I made inside the chrome and glass door at five. This was the type of place with a cigarette vending machine with the half-inch buttons of a jukebox. I got there after leaving a job working at a medical equipment company. I had two hours to kill before a class I taught at a vocational school for Boeing workers. I drank coffee from white porcelain mugs and wrote in my journal. The diner was in the part of town that had been alive in the 1960s and had probably been in decline since the 1970s. It was the early 2000s and inertia had probably spared the block from the impending gentrification. Business people ate their lunch there during the day. The old people who lived in the inexpensive apartments downtown came to the diner for liver and onions. The main activity downtown at that hour was several blocks down at the Starbucks. The blocks around the school and diner were empty at dusk. The old men in cardigans didn't look at me as I wrote in my journal. I found their presence comfortable as a continuity between the past and the present, between the town that was fading away and the town that was emerging and has now long since been rebuilt into bistros, coffee shops, colorful box shaped condos with narrow, human-free terraces holding plants. The feeling for me, like the feeling after reading this book, is of one foot in the world and one foot in oblivion.

A key poem in the collection is “Bubba and the Pinfish.” The poets gather in the spaces in the old town to read their poems. The spaces are like spaces that could be next to the diner where I wrote in my journal in Everett, or King's Books in Tacoma, or Jackson’s Books in Salem, or Lucy's Books in Astoria. In this poem, Bubba is the night janitor who has to let the narrator into the space. The poem makes it easy to imagine the narrator reading the pieces collected in The River People at these venues. On the page poems are quiet, private thoughts. Open mics, however, often stumble into a moment where a poet is revealing quiet, private thoughts in public.

A look through The River People’s acknowledgements made me nostalgic for the time and places that supported some of the journals where the poems first appeared, places such as Cranky, Snow Monkey, and Point No Point. Snow Monkey’s website reads, “Snow Monkey is taking a well-earned break. We'll be on hiatus until further notice.” Peter Meinke sums up the province of the poems in his blurb, “It's about time a book of Polly Buckingham's striking poems has come out. [. . .] The poems have been around for years and are gathered here in a delightful first collection.” Buckingham's poems are an evocation of a life lived in rooms with broke ceiling fans and dust collecting on the windowsills.

Matt Briggs has been a curator of the Jack Straw Writers Series and a writer in residence at Richard Hugo House. His first book, The Remains of River Names, was recently published in an Italian translation, and his novel, Shoot the Buffalo, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award and won an American Book Award. A collection of short, short fiction is forthcoming from Dr. Cicero Books.

 

Florida Morning

We wake to the smell of gardenia.
We float white flowers in a blue bowl.

At night when we follow the shore
handfuls of cold fade into stars.

Steam rises from the groves
coating each orange in a woolen haze.

We press each other between the sheets
and rise like ocean swells, then fade

as a ghost might float into morning.

—Polly Buckingham