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In Memory of a Banyan Tree: Poems of the Outside World: 1985 to 2022
Three Wooden Trunks
The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Selected Poems
The Voluptuary  
  Paulann Petersen

ISBN 978-0-9844510-3-6     $18  /  $21 (Canada)     5.5 x 8.5       

128 pp      
PUB DATE: September 2010       Poetry


These are the poems of an enraptured heart and mind, of clear eyes and ears doing the soul’s seeing and hearing. They vividly prove the unchanged function and relevance of poetry: to crystallize unsayable, non-verbal inner states, and to sanctify every world it touches. The Voluptuary brings us necessary visionary news of a profound sanity rooted in ecstatic love for creation.

—Li-Young Lee

Permeated with vision and spirit and the luck of “a thousand green say-so’s,” Paulann Petersen, nee Paulann Whitman, lives the life poetry invites us to find—deftly weaving tendrils of earth and mind into a precisely elegant terrain. These poems are large and loving enough for everyone to feel at home in.

­—Naomi Shihab Nye

The Voluptuary is vast; its pages define magnanimity. The contrasts within it are razor sharp—sun and moon, darkness and light, bumblebee and raven—all parts of life shot through with the silken strands of green, of grass in the fields and leaves on the trees, everything bathed in honeyed light. Paulann Petersen’s poems read as if they are pieces from an “endless library,” as she implies in her definition of poetry, something infinite and deep, like a well. She sees her words cast from a sounding-bowl across the sky, words as fine as “any line-up of suns a night sky could flaunt.” Those worlds illuminate our path to the well. We lift our shining gourds and drink.

—Greg Simon


About the Author

Paulann Petersen

Oregon’s sixth Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University whose poems have appeared in many publications including Poetry, The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, and Wilderness Magazine. She has four chapbooks (Under the Sign of a Neon Wolf, The Animal Bride, Fabrication and The Hermaphrodite Flower). Her first full-length collection of poems, The Wild Awake (2002), was published by Confluence Press. A second, Blood-Silk (2004), poems about Turkey, was published by Quiet Lion Press of Portland. Another, A Bride of Narrow Escape (2006), was published by Cloudbank Books as part of its Northwest Poetry Series and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. A fourth collection, Kindle (2008), was published by Mountains and Rivers Press.

Her work has been selected for Poetry Daily on the Internet, and for Poetry in Motion, which puts poems on busses and light rail cars in the Portland metropolitan area. In addition to having taught high school English, she’s been on the faculty for Fishtrap, and has given workshops for Oregon Writers Workshop, Oregon State Poetry Association, Mountain Writers Series, OCTE and NCTE Conferences, and the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College. The recipient of the 2006 Literary Arts Stewart Holbrook Award for Outstanding Contributions to Oregon’s Literary Life, she serves on the board for Friends of William Stafford, organizing the annual William Stafford birthday events each January.


The Voluptuary was on Poetry Foundation's Best Selling Poetry Books list—at number 16 and 22—for several weeks in 2010.




Volume 27, No, 1, Winter 2012
Review by Penelope Scambly Schott

The Voluptuary by Paulann Petersen
Lost Horse Press, Sandpoint, Idaho

Voluptuary: a person whose life is given over to luxury and sensual pleasures.

Yes, the speaker of these poems is a sensualist, but the greatest voluptuaries in this collection are the bees, followed closely by trees, crows, and all manner of life.

Any new book by Paulann Petersen, current Poet Laureate of Oregon and author of three previous poetry collections, as well as fairy godmother of the local poetry scene, is a delight. This volume, The Voluptuary, is both a celebration of the sensuality of nature and also an extended ars poetic, reflecting again and again on how the natural world is the source of her poetry. In “Sky-sower” the sky itself becomes breath. “Words skidded across/ my teeth and tongue . . . the hoarded/ blue of unopened song.” Of the blue bees in “Indigo” the poet states “My throat is your hive” as “Excess, heat: you rise from my skin.” Because “Indigo” comes as the second poem in the book, we as readers start out well warned that we are dealing with the poetics of excess, of ecstasy, of tiptoeing on the exciting edge of gush. In this collection, there is little of the quotidian suggested by the mother-daughter conflict of the first poem “Bloodline” where the daughter is full of “sass and door-slams.” As it turns out, even that poem is really about the outrageous force of the moon.

The language itself is daring, both in word use and sound. Fir trees “wimple” and crows “wheel in a hubbub/ of dark jabber” (“Since Most Stars Are Strangers”), the verb carouse becomes transitive, “its hum carousing/ my veins” (“Indigo”), dusk is called “dwindle-day” (“What Remains”), geese crossing stubble “sway-stepped across the prickle” and a fly is described as “sun-sodden” (“In February’s Field”). Although Petersen pays extensive tribute to Walt Whitman (to whom the book is dedicated along with her parents, Grace and Paul Whitman), one senses both Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins lurking on the writerly family tree.

Like all three of these poetic ancestors, Petersen is a close observer. She describes a daffodil stem “with lymph falling in clear strings” (“The Light Connecting Each to All”). With a firm awareness of basic science, she tells us, “A wind means one thing’s/ heating up, while another cools” (“Ember”).

Voluptuary is divided into five sections, each preceded by a short lyric. At the beginning of Section Three, The Hermaphrodite Flower, Peterson writes:

A Father, you are, Walt Whitman. And I, grass-child to your tree
whose leaves as you wrote them
saw ahead to the me bearing your name.

Throughout the section the “you” addressed is Whitman himself. “ In “Hermaphrodite” he is praised for his words, his life, the nitty-gritty of his physical essence:

Holy are those salts, those oils
that rose to live on your skin.

Holy the pores that held them.
Sweat, gloss, dander, rime.

Holy the tongue whose tip
was given that glint to taste.

In “Nearness Called Forth” Petersen explicitly rejects the modern edict that “less is more” and states: “No excess/ too large for embrace.”

Then in Section Four, Sounding-Bowl, the poet turns to the particulars of her own body. She runs a fingertip “gleamed with spittle” along the edge of a bowl. The finger has “my body’s only whorled skin” (“Arc”). She chews a fig: “against my teeth–/ a sun’s fine grit” (“Fig”). Her heart, “this dark nester,” beats irregularly (“Feeding Crows”). Crumbs stick to her face:

My mouth’s corner
forms a crust–the grain and grit
of sweetness grown old. (“Far”)

From here she moves on to thinking of her own skeleton, “Opal-clean bones/ and tooth-clenched skull.” In the same poem she announces:

I leave understatement to the gods,
leave its clacket of bones to my burial dirt.
Blown too human, I praise, I sing. (“Gravity”)

Praising and singing are indeed Petersen’s chosen mode.

Section Four closes with what may be my favorite single poem of this whole collection. Here the speaker gives instructions for the coffin she wants, complete with two perches for carved wooden birds:

Make the first with its beak
open. The other, shut.

One for song,
one for the quiet after. (“To My Coffin Maker”)

I wanted the book to end here, on that beautiful silence.

But, of course, there is another whole section because any true voluptuary always wants more. Or maybe the word voluptuary is being used in the sense of bestiary, as in a vast collection of all things voluptuous. So we get “Erotic thrum” sounding the names of the living world (“Anthem”), we get “the moon’s legs wrapped around/ the sun’s thick hips” plus a charming bit of humor: “Play it safe./ Look the other way.” (“Solar Eclipse”), we get Venus’s “labial light” (“Heavenly Body”), and more bees, more birds, more lovely language: “These shadows have cut themselves free/ from night’s body” (“Crows Feeding on Crusted Snow”). The penultimate poem speaks of birds’ beaks “Worn to perfection” (“Use”). Perfection might have been a good place to stop, but then we wouldn’t have the final poem, “Voluptuaries,” which is doused in verbal perfume: “Liquor of pollen/ ester of want and plenty.”

In this musical and generous book, you will not want for plenty. Enjoy it, appreciate the lushness, but don’t read it all at once. Allow yourself space and silence and a little of the mundane between the poems.


The moon is wet nurse
to roses. She suckles
each soft-mouthed poppy.

Blame her for menses.
Rail at her for the craving
to binge and purge.

Please her when you choose
to delay the day for planting,
biding your time
until night has fattened
her silver torso. Praise her
when the fleck of seed
poked down into damp dark
takes hold and swells.

Any girl-child is always
her offspring.

Upbraid her for your daughter’s
sass and door-slams,
that hot hurry to be what most
differs from you.

Long ago, the moon decided
on a pathway against the route
stars take. No one else
would dare to walk
the black sky backward.