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Posted by : cj on Friday, March 25, 2005 - 09:26 AM
Chicago Poetry Reviews: Click Headlines .
Maureen Tolman FlanneryAncestors in the Landscape
Poems of a Rancher's Daughter
by Maureen Tolman Flannery
John Gordon Burke Publisher, Inc.
Reviewed by C. J. Laity

Maureen Tolman Flannery's Ancestors in the Landscape is an epic poetic study of sheep herding in Wyoming, and it is a daring and gorgeous adventure into her legendary environment ("Crazy Woman Creek" or "Dull Knife") that spans four generations of Irish family. The book shares wonderful tales of wilderness, using its rare sense of place to introduce a world of wildlife to an urban environment. It is full of likeable characters, be them human, animal or vegetable, each inspiring sympathy as they face an unforgiving Mother Nature. Patient in it's attention to detail, this is the Moby Dick of nature poetry.

Often gruesome in its imagery, this poetry travels the spectrum of mood, always returning to beauty:

the message and the mystery of maggots,
the strange hypnotic beauty of their hideous dance,

(from "Maggots")

Flannery never flinches at her difficult subject matters, never crossing the borders of her theme of Wyoming, even through a series of political poems about the incarceration of Japanese people during World War II:

With scant Wyoming rain from the wide blue sky
their names have washed into thirsty soil.

(from "Heart Mountain War Memorial")

Using sharp similes ("tall as an oil derrick" or "sad as a zoo animal"), one after the other, it is as if each comparison is the strike of an ax against a great tree that she is downing:

She must find a way to plant his round toes
in the ground like potato eyes.

(from "Issei Mother at Heart Mountain")

To root our mind's eye into her own crystal clear memory, Flannery concentrates on certain archetypal objects as if they are pinpoints on the map of her family ranch:

Her quilts covered every mouse-eaten mattress
that muffled squeaky springs

(from "Before She Left")

Usually these objects dot the poems here and there, but sometimes they arrive like the unyielding current of a river:

a pop-top ring, a shard of broken glass,
a pale topaz oval of fragrant sap,
an opalescent beetle's wing--

(from "Cabin Packrat")


I'm drawn to this box that holds
textile remnants of their femininity—blouses
so demure no skin could be detected from beneath,
no trace of touchability show through;
rolls of crocheted lace
cut from worn-out garments to be used again
a pair of sleeves of pale green apple silk
with delicate French lace
a baby's bonnet, woolen long-johns
full gathered white lawn petticoats
a stained apron with its ruffles
white and starched—the kitchen garb
of women in the stories old men tell

(from "High-Necked Lace and Rightness")

Sometimes these objects are described with such clarity that the image of them effortlessly leaps off the page:

It's a wine-colored Motorola, surely as old as she,
with two large black dials
that give it the look of a geometric gremlin

(from "Loss")

Ancestors in the Landscape is also a celebration of the senses:

the residue of a house full of racing children
and the working men, smelling of onion gulch,
their threshing machine voices scraping

(from "High-Necked Lace and Rightness")

Colors ("white as Dakota in the moon of the lazy sun") shine before the reader's eyes:

As far as we can see
is a gently swaying prairie of daisies,
balsamroot, snow thistle, little sunflowers,
all yellow as a brood of chicks
scurrying into a blur of moving sunlight.

(from "Yellow Gold")


And sometimes, when mountains turn impassable backs,
and hail clouds gray and blacken heaven,
the fears of frontier families
pass over you like cloud shadows across badlands.

(from "Recollections of Place")


Some debris is still black from the forest fire,
while all the metal rubble
has rusted to the red of old blood.

(from "In the Path of the Forest Fire")

The language in this book flows with a sometimes dangerous ease:

Urban death has grown irrational as hail stones,
rides astride stray bullets, familiar with malicious whimsy.
Afraid to engage her as night nurse or scullery maid,
we forget with what kindness she embraces those in pain, undone,

how she redesigns misaligned bodies to corn or morning glory.

(from "Caring for the Crow")

The poem I enjoyed the most in this book was "Litany for a Rancher" for its strong sense of voice, the musicality of its rhythm, and the performance poetry oriented tone. With a awesome omnipotence Flannery travels out into the vastness to find her way directly into someone's mouth, jumps from first person to third person to second person with seamless perfection, and spreads her palms to show us mountains like "wise white-haired old men against the sky". I felt like I won the poetic jack-pot after reading this book, and I think you will too.

--C. J. Laity

This book can be purchased directly from the author or through Barnes and Noble.

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**We hope you found the information on this page useful. needs your help. We are holding a fundraising drive in order to stay online. There are two ways that you can help:
Click here to offer a financial gift or click here to order the new book by Press.

Note: Here is a review of Maureen Tolman Flannery's book "Ancestors in the Landscape"

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