by Eric Morris-Pusey
It’s odd that we so often think of “nature poetry,” the kind of poetry that deals with the land, as distinct from poetry of the body. The human body, after all, is the bit of nature with which we’re most intimately familiar.
Rebecca Pelky’s debut, Horizon of the Dog Woman, breaks down this dichotomy: it is a collection of both nature poems and body poems, of poems that center the ways in which the body and the natural world reflect and shape one another. The land and the body share the same love and joy, bear the same scars.
This book often revels in natural beauty, its speakers drawing strength and succor from the natural world, but it also refuses to forget or obfuscate the awful history of the United States’ land, product of theft and genocide, and the ways in which that history ripples into the present. This history is not an abstraction that exists only in the past, but a physical and emotional presence in both land and body.
In “Eat the Weed, the Stinking Rose,” a description of the ways in which water transforms the land, “strok[ing] it to furrows” and allowing plants to flourish, soon gives way to more troubling sights: “the boxy spiral of a pit mine, in the scars / of what’s been found, the pressure that swells / under skins.” Even in these scars, these marks of abuse and misuse, there is life and beauty—but not without violence and exploitation. The poem ends with the resonant, contradictory image of a wild onion: “the bulb tender, sweet. Not so the shoot, / . . . its pepper was reckless, the toughness of fibers I chewed and chewed.”
These poems do not oversimplify. They do not stop at saying there is beauty despite history or the difficulty of life; rather, they show the world as it is: a tangled mess that is sometimes terrible, sometimes wonderful, and usually an uncomfortable mixture of both.
In “For Women Who Don’t Want Children,” Pelky’s speaker feels guilt at “distance / between myself and a vision of little hands / curled in the cup of my hips” but also points to the way we marvel at anything “single in nature.” The feelings are further complicated by an intense juxtaposition: is the speaker “one red wildflower in spring runoff” or “Spotted Elk dead in the snow”? These poems don’t provide any easy answers, any happily-ever-afters, and are far more honest for it.
The book engages with another sort of history, too: that of the academy, of definitions and categorizations, of the literary canon. The book opens with an extensive set of epigraphs that do a wonderful job of setting the collection’s tone without overshadowing the poems themselves: a set of dictionary definitions for the words “dog” and “horizon,” dealing academically and matter-of-factly with their connotations and denotations, is accompanied by an excerpt from anthropologist Jenny James’s “The Dog Tribe.” These epigraphs illustrate the same complexity we find throughout the book.
The first definition given for dog simply “denot[es] a person or thing (with varying degrees of contempt or admiration),” evoking everything from what’s up, dog? to working doggedly to she’s a dog to Joe Biden’s latest incomprehensible attack on a woman who asked him a question. The second hits more directly—“an unattractive woman or girl.” The third definition provides an astronomical context for dog, taking us to the stars, and the excerpt from James discusses the dog as a religious archetype associated with “maternal origin, the reconciliation of opposites, and the bond between humanity and nature.”
So many distinct and often self-contradictory or self-complicating meanings of the word dog provide the perfect doorway into this collection, a book in which Pelky constantly uses images and ideas to represent and evoke more than one thing—and the idea of “reconciliation of opposites” is one of this collection’s primary driving forces.
The book takes on the history of literature more directly, too, challenging the dominant (read: white and masculine) view of this history with poems like “Let’s Ask Leda about Consent” and “Bess, the Landlord’s Daughter, Talks Back.” These pieces further tie together the various threads that make up Horizon of the Dog Woman: The personal reflections and the meditations on history and the natural world are given further context within a literature that has too often been complicit in systems of power that erase women and indigenous people and wreak ecological havoc.
In writing about a wide array of subjects and the webs of connection among them, Pelky never ignores craft: these poems are not only precise in their language and imagery, but do wonderful things with sound as well, particularly alliteration and consonance: “I’ll grow like sorghum, on drought / and tempered shit, baked and honeyed / to the hummingbird god. I’ll spread” (“Flyblown”). Each of the poems has a natural flow, a fluidity of language, that makes it feel full and rewards re-reading and reading aloud. At the same time, they do not feel overwrought: these poems are both conversational and poetic, never sacrificing one for the other.
These various threads—of land and body, definition and history, craft and subject—come together as vibrant and vital, the collection mirroring the strata of a shoreline Pelky both describes and reimagines in “Fossils,” truly “alive in a way we recognize as life.” History and the present, the physical landscape and the inner one are collided and combined in a kaleidoscopic crush, each one shown in greater clarity because of the ways it is tied to the others.
Horizon of the Dog Woman is available now from Saint Julian Press. Rebecca Pelky will read at the collection’s AWP offsite launch at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio on Wednesday, March 4th.
Eric Morris-Pusey’s poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Noble-Gas Qtrly, and Driftwood Press, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. He lives across from a vacant lot in Columbia, Missouri, with his partner, poet Grace Gardiner.
Author photo from Saint Julian Press.