Sunday, August 24, 2008

Notes From Refuge by Lana Maht Wiggins

Book review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 88 pages
Publisher: Plain View Press (April 30, 2008)
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 1891386344
ISBN-13: 978-1891386343

"Poems aren't free and they sure don't come easy," writes the poet, Lana Maht Wiggins, in her poem, "Nine Days Before the Storm." As a poet and poetry editor myself, I can only sigh and agree, having paid many a high price in gold and flesh and heart pieces. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. Which brings me to the conclusion that if terrible storms and their heavy, overhanging clouds still have silver linings, Katrina, the now legendary killer storm of New Orleans, has produced not only silver, but words of gold in its aftermath from resident, Lana Maht Wiggins.

When I accepted several of Wiggins' poems for the Fall 2007 issue of The Smoking Poet, a literary ezine I manage, I had only a hint of this shimmering and stormy talent. Now, with whole collection in hand, Notes From Refuge, I see my instinct couldn't have been more precise. This collection is the sort that makes an editor want to run through the streets and shout a declaration: talent found! You must read this! And grab the innocent or not so innocent passersby, shove them into seated position in the very spot where they stand, and hold the book open before them. Must. Read. This.

Or not.

This is also the sort of collection that a woman holds greedily to bruised heart and seeps in silence, absorbing the moment of knowing herself understood. Not alone. Yet alone. Here echoes the voice of all women, here is mirrored the image of all women, weathered by whatever storm. The echo heard and reheard and reechoed causes the breath to stop, be held, so that nothing might disturb its perfection. And the next passing moment be forestalled so as not to break the sacred silence.

I experienced this, too, in reading Wiggin's work. Again.

One moment a cry to battle. Another moment a call to meditate. Wiggins' poetry is all things, all cries, takes all angles and never misses a turn. Her title poem, "Notes from Refuge," is a bare bone list of "things to do after disaster:"

Count cash
Call mother
Smoke cheap cigarettes
Contact FEMA
Stand in line
Drink free coffee
Mingle with refugees
Attend funerals
Eat free food
Contact FEMA

and on and on the list goes, hammering in the state of disciplined despair mingled with the state of hardened survival, the metronome of "Contact FEMA" sounded at a regular interval, unanswered.

Wiggins addresses with a glorious courage what too many fear to address. In "Detour of Destiny," she dares:

Being tap-wired into submission will make us
what we fear most and we will die as our own enemy.

They will censor me if I say there is no
democracy in oil rigs and other weapons -
if I say there is no democracy at all
except on parched documents in heavy glass.

...I long for long-lost purple mountain grit,
honesty among thieves, and gentlefolk side-by-side
defending honor and home.

The poet then takes on yet another battle cry, and this one in the tone of a feminism that holds both genders accountable. In "Things Mina Loy Couldn't Say," Wiggins takes her stand:

Get out of my way.
You and your nine inch identity
don't know who you're dealing with.
I've made grown men cry
by the edge of my tongue.

Then proceeds to take on the other half with the same dose of medicine:

Woman, you're a fool.
A mere fragment of a whole
cumulation of falsehoods...

You conserve your energy for desire
to be loved by that which does not.

...Your exchange of flesh
goes against laws of reciprocity.
You receive nothing
but a skin-sack of potential perpetuation.

Wiggins brings back Mina Loy and gives her more say in the prose poem, "The Other Side:"

So here it ends ... another opportunity to bridge the gap of a centuries old war. Mina Loy said it best ... we are to blame for our own subjugation ... it was the division between our sisters and our selves that kept us from reforming legislation, but even worse ... from revising the myths of the feminine as a lesser being ... wives, witches, or whores - those were the choices given to us and still we stand here today ... divided by petty temper tantrums and an unwillingness to forgive ...

Yet for all her fierceness, Wiggins is equally capable of capturing the most tender moments, of love, of union, of disunion, of separation, of aloneness, of madness, of grief. "Reflection of Fear" offers but one such example in sparse words, haiku-like, that singe to the bone of truth:

it's always nights
unwarped by sleep
that we try to remember

where the heart is hidden
how water holds
the body afloat
when to breathe
if it lets you fall ...

If we fall, then it is through a vortex of words that nail us to the wall, to the floor, to the ceiling, and demand our attention, our action, our hearts.

~ Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2008

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