Flatlands by Ruth Williams
Black Lawrence Press, 2018. 60 pages.
Reviewed by DM. O’Connor
Ruth Williams’ collection Flatlands is as solid and honest as the great plains itself. On the surface, a safe, dry grassland full of stillness and sky. But read between the wheatsheaves, the corn rows, the grass blades, and a world brimming with nostalgia appears. There is the poem about the first kiss, the day picking strawberries, the one-room-school house, grandmother and sister. There are several meditations on boredom. “Radical Blah” (the first one of two) calls forth the ubiquitous train whistle, that birdcall of America:
In every plains town,
All night trains whistle
a dark bell sound.
a bitter pleasure.
Over the landscape, then
a cold red fit.
Simple, direct, almost Zen, Williams brings the past personal to the timeless future. Goldenrod, Nebraska’s state flower, makes a fist. The rooster turns genital. Antelopes become ballerinas. Snakes curl like spades. Flatlands is a dream of hills in an interior landscape. “Thug Weather” is a good example:
All action happens
in the mind. All meaning
in archival accrual.
Everyone here wishes for curled toes, multiple orgasms.
New, more environmental cars.
Mostly, they long to be in Chicago.
Big, brotherly brute of a city. Sulphur smelling pig.
Williams employs mostly couplets, tercets, and quatrains, never drifting far from the traditional in both form and theme. The plethora of animals and flowers teeter the images toward eco-poetics but the tone is never preachy. Politics are avoided. No shopping malls nor interstates—this is not suburbia, nor urban. Flatlands in bucolic nostalgia. These are fireside poems at play with Willa Cather, Ted Kooser territory, think Don Welch. “Jackalope” capture the mythic, the meditative, shape shifting of wind yellow pastures:
tear the grass away
to a light hare. The horns,
a shadow branch
in a mythic drowse.
Not an extra word, just enough to paint the image, simple, balanced, solid and honest—Ruth William’s Flatlands is understated yet exact.
The only anomaly in the collection is “His Gorgette” which is full of word play and risk:
Block throat, cock-wide canker. I am
flanged to spine you, wound-wanker. Hang on
to another name for this. Love
to make you skin gorged, ganked to my plank.
What plink? What marble
shims me? You must be shank-in.
Somewhere between this pyrotechnic wordplay and earlier Zen-prairie-minimalism, lives the perfect poem. Let’s hope Williams continues to seek and publish her resulting pursuits.
DAVID MORGAN O'CONNOR is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.