Elise Stuart’s debut collection shimmers in the rain, gets snagged on the cholla, frees itself in the night winds, and goes rolling down a flooded arroyo. This terrific collection couldn’t have been written anywhere but New Mexico, Stuart’s spiritual home. Her familial roots lie elsewhere, but her narrative voice and sensibility reside firmly in the land of deserts and cactus, coyote and bear.
These poems are distant relatives of the work of the Romantics: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron and Keats, but with a modern edge. Stuart isn’t entirely pastoral; there are echoes of Sexton and Plath in the hints of psychic disturbance under the surface: “Lightning splits me open” (Lightning); “the same miracle/that splits open the seed’s heart/splits open mine.” (Everything Begins in the Dark); “letting stars fill up/all the empty places in me.” (Reading the Stars).
While mountains, clouds, rocks, rivers and rain punctuate the work – metaphors for life’s mysteries – these poems are as much about the longings of the human heart as they are about the landscape of Stuart’s Eden. At one point I was reminded of the great confessional poet Elizabeth Bishop’s line: “Nobody’s heart is really good for much until it has been smashed to little bits.”
If much of the work, then, draws on the relationships between inner (mental) and outer (physical) landscapes, Stuart keeps us on our toes with small wonders and big surprises. My Dog Begins to Look Like a Wolf is about a domesticated animal subconsciously regaining its wild ancestral past. Attempted Relationship is about wanting to love and being unable to, and finding a way to let go: “You can’t hate an apple/for being an orange.”
Stuart’s grasp of rhythm and sound pattern is as fine as silk thread. The poems use short lines to build images one upon the other, crescendoing like waves breaking on a shore. And like all poets at the top of their game, she excels at endings, providing resonance through an unexpected image or verb.
Another Door Calls is a very fine debut indeed – a love song to New Mexico and to life in all its wild guises.