Publisher: David Robert Books (2011)
Review by: Ann E. Michael
There are many ways to narrate a history, and poetry is one of the traditional methods of passing along a culture, a way of life, a sense of “who we are.” Often, these narratives are intimate, meant to convey to the listeners a kind of tribal awareness: this story is what makes you (us) special. In such cases, the writer needs to be aware that the reader may not be “us,” may need an area of grounding in order to engage with and relate to the poems; without some measure of accessibility, the narrative might falter. Navigating this territory—between the intimate, familial “us” and the universal “we”—is something Zara Raab manages well in her collection Swimming the Eel. While the poems cumulatively tell the story of a region and a family or interconnected set of families, the book as a whole follows a trajectory Americans understand; and reflective citizens will recognize in these poems a history of the tribal, geological, environmental and cultural streams that have lent their elements to the people we are today.
These poems are rooted, almost literally, in northern California; and the majority of the pieces are subtly wrought with an eye to meter, rhythmic and rhyme patterns. Readers who are unfamiliar with the region will find that Raab immerses them in its images, flora, fauna, and its geological and cultural spaces. Early in the collection, we meet Tom Buhe, fishing for salmon in the land of the Wiyot people. One of the elders calls to him,
In his hip boots, Tom went to him
through fescue grasses high as his shins,
shouldering his creel,
two men standing where Eel fell to sea,
the Wiyot at home in their tipis,
Tom with his lines and reel.
Raab’s lines quickly establish the sort of landscape these people inhabit, its grasses and its swamps, winter wheatfields, laurel and “springy, pungent pine boughs,” whiskey stills, stinkweed. And, too, she resurrects the natives who once populated the area of Mendocino and northward, as well as the interloping whites who came for trapping, gold, farming, fish. In these poems, we encounter the Wiyot, the Yahi, Athapaskans, Pomos, Sinkyone and Wailaki, peoples unfamiliar to most people who now call themselves Americans. The original peoples’ territory begins, in this narrative, in Illinois with the opening poem. By the closing section of the book, in contemporary Mendocino and San Francisco, all that are left of these people are the names of rivers and mountains, a few towns.
Swimming the Eel introduces some recurring characters and their descendants and namesakes: the Alonzos, Hands, Nells and Belles who travel or stay put, staking various kinds of claims upon the land.Raab employs persona to create this multi-layered regional collage, as in “Gravel-man” and “You Never Know;” other times, the first person pronoun conveys the impression that the readers are encountering the poet’spersona. Raab’s use of the word “we” is intriguing—there is the familial “we” of siblings as well as the unifying collective of “we the people;” or in more intimate uses (you, auditor, are privy to what I, speaker, reveal). Sometimes this “we” suggests an ethnicity or cultural community, sometimes a romance, “humming the morning aria /we shared, the barber’s son and I.”
Because Raab’s poems follow people on journeys both physical and emotional, the collection draws the reader in on several levels. In “Going to Branscomb,” a woman has “set out alone in March; winter had filled/the pools over the old flows of lava” and travels alone to find a place to settle: “she forded the Eel/at Branscomb, hoe rattling in the wagon,/and claimed her land at last.” In “The Father,” the poet writes: “Brothers go far from home; sisters endure very different/fates; strangers come among us, whom we take as our/own. Constantly we struggle to make a living…” This struggle lies at the heart of Swimming the Eel and is explicitly examined, human being by human being, within the landscapes these travelers pass through, try to tame, and live in with awareness that seems almost archaic in its sensuous attention to detail. If we are very quiet, and careful, we may encounter many revelations amid the russian olives, orcuttia grasses, hair sedge, poppies, and along the banks of rivers.
And if we are ourselves careful readers, we will find that Raab knows well how to employ formal strategies in her poems, metrical subtleties that do not overweigh the lines and that do what metrics ought to do—enhance the meaning—and is capable of great refinement of sound in her use of assonance and rhyme. She sustains the reader through sound, rhythm, character, narrative, and vivid observation in this chronology of ancestry and change.
Poet, essayist, librettist, and educator Ann E. Michael is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University. Her work has been published in many journals, including Poem, Natural Bridge, Ninth Letter, Runes, Diner, Sentence, Slant, ISLE, The Writer’s Chronicle, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts and others, as well as in numerous literary anthologies. She is a past recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Her chapbooks include More than Shelter, The Minor Fauna, Small Things Rise & Go, and The Capable Heart. Her full-length collection, Water-Rites, is now available from Brick Road Poetry Press.