I have been singing the praises of Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor for some time. I have not mentioned that I have been a fan of Priscilla’s poetry for…about 30 years. A popular writing teacher in Seattle (I’ve taken two of her classes), Priscilla is better known as an essayist; among her accomplishments, she authored the wonderful Science Frictions blog at The American Scholar from 2011-2013. But now, at long last, we have a book of poetry.
In her first poetry collection, Crossing Over (University of New Mexico Press, 2015), Long once again demonstrates her intense love of language. I have read most of these poems before, some of them, many times. There is a dark and desperate beauty here. A number of the poems deal with death, especially untimely death. Bridges are a literal and symbolic presence, and are interwoven with authors (some named, some alluded to or quoted) whose fictions and poems are bridges into otherwise obscure or unknown worlds. War raises its ugly head, and trash glitters amid the (always precisely named) weeds. But what strikes me most, in seeing these poems together, in this setting, is the playfulness of the language. Lines are littered with vowel rhymes and alliteration. Words repeat and ping off one another line to line and poem to poem, section to section.
Here is the first poem, which sets off a volley of sounds (and themes):
Your beauty stuns, but
it’s static, photographic.
Your stories stir the dust,
stick to the broom.
Your drawings dream
your fine-stitched quilt.
Your death–your gift
of stones to us. No blame.
Suicides are deranged
with despair. Oh Susanne.
Were there a bridge back to you,
I would take it anywhere.
The next poem, “Queen of the Cut,” is a tribute to a Washington State bridge (the first of several), but seems as though it could be part of a diptych with the first poem, its images mirroring back toward “Sister Ghost”: “Night-gem, sun-brooch, sky-jewel,” “girl-queen,” “smoke-daughter.”
The back cover copy suggests–spot on–that these poems beg to be read aloud. And even a quick sampling of lines proves that true: “Derelict brick,” “Bluebells ding the dipthongs,” “Shall I tuck a notebook / into your rucksack, your rum cake?” But I hope no one will miss the dark undercurrent of these poems, themes of fire and smoke and ash that pull and tug at a reader’s body and threaten to pull us under.