June 15, 2009

Review by Kristin Berkey-Abbott

A RANDOM CENSUS OF SOULS
by Samuel Western

Daniel & Daniel Publishers
P.O. Box 2790
McKinleyville, CA 95519
ISBN 978-156474-478-4
2009, 80 pp., $14.00
www.danielpublishing.com

When I first saw the title of Samuel Western’s book of poems, I couldn’t resist. A Random Census of Souls: I expected poems that had interesting images and references back to medieval times, perhaps. Or maybe modern ideas of random sampling fused with theological ideas about the soul. I wasn’t expecting to completely rethink the way I approached prose poems.

Right on the cover, the book declares itself as a collection of prose poems. I’m used to thinking of prose poems as short, paragraph-sized chunks of texts, but Western has divided his prose poems into stanzas. It’s a technique that works, but to be honest, some of these prose poems also seem to have deliberative line breaks. Are these poems all prose poems, as the declaration on the cover would suggest?

In the end, someone like me, with an English major kind of mind that is too interested in categories and what fits in a category and what doesn’t, is probably the only person who will spend much time puzzling over this question. Other readers will fall under the spell of Western’s strong images and compelling narratives.

Many of these poems sum up a life in just a few succinct sentences of detail. For example, “Astronomy” lets us know from the first sentence that we’re in for heartbreak: “The morning she confessed to hating me, a piece of me died.” But the author uses such interesting images, in such concise language, to explore the nature of the death of love: “Her declaration wasn’t said without love. I knew that long ago, a constellation had been ripped from her sky and scattered across a cold field for the raven and jays to feed on at their pleasure. Now she saw her labors, no matter how diligent, would not restore the original configuration of stars.”

Of course, not all of these poems analyze heartbreak. I particularly loved “Bethlehem (House of Bread),” which uses the metaphor of dough mixing and bread baking to explore a father-adolescent daughter relationship. Several poems similarly revolve around food and alcohol. Even more revolve around rural life.

These poems have much to teach us about a life fast disappearing, with their images of baling contractors and spring plowing and planting. In “Feeding the Bears,” lines about planting and composting give way to lines about development: “Any ground good for growing pumpkins is good for growing houses.” A sense of loss is never far away. Several of these poems plant themselves firmly in the past, with specific years as part of their titles (“Garrison Project, North Dakota, 1951,” “Hot Springs, 1955,” and “Inland Nova Scotia, August 1905”).

I particularly love the poems that make me think about something in a way I hadn’t thought about it before. “The Confessions of Quarries” reminds us of how much deep water can hide. “Easter Noir” has intriguing ideas of redemption and spring. “Act of Faith” uses meteorological images to describe a child’s tantrum. “Drinking Townsend’s Solitaire” presents a story of a creek which hears all of the forest’s songs, the creek as “hymnal of the woods,” on its journey to the sea, a journey disrupted by development.

But in the end, I love these poems most for the life that they preserve. Reading them is like meeting my farming ancestors who died (partly because of the brutality of rural life) before I was born. I read A Random Census of Souls a month after I read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and both books had a similar effect on me. I fell in love with their musicality and lyrical language. But at the same time, I was haunted by how much difficulty humans have endured, especially as they settled new places; the poem “Coalwater” reminds us: “Newcomers thought they were taming this land, but it, in fact stalked them, biding its time for the moment of greatest vulnerability—at the cusp of hope—that moment when they would give in to their greatest garrisoned dreams, the avaristic fantasies of their crushed forefathers, whispering not to let this chance pass them by.” These books left me awed by the fact that humans are still here and touched by the intimate moments of tenderness that both books preserve in their pages.

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Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. She has published in many journals and was one of the top ten finalists in the National Looking Glass Poetry Chapbook Competition. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale and serves as Assistant Chair of the General Education department. Her website, which has connections to the blogs that she keeps, is www.kristinberkey-abbott.com.

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