The Pattern Maker's Daughter. Sandee Gertz Umbach. Working Lives Series. Bottom Dog Press. Huron, Ohio. 2012.
"I am rooted in this Appalachian bedrock." - Sandee Gertz Umbach
Sandee Gertz Umback is that gem produced by intense pressure. These rich, layered and textured poems are fecund with delight and so real you will think you already know these stories.
There is a wide trove of entryways into Appalachian culture, popular movies, photographs, music - Umbach is offering up a young woman's understanding voiced through the mature prism of the grown poet.
Opening this book is breaking soil to find riches.
Jackie in the Dusk
Jackie's tanned legs swing from the banister
of her front porch; the rotten wood,
the clouds of her tobacco smoke
frame her curved hips.
She wears a halter that's been kissed
by Mad Dog lips. She is a place where mother
says not to linger—the Stingrays revving
on her front lawn and the rumbling engines
of Hornerstown boys behind the wheel.
They see me pass, my pale baby fat
just beginning its long pour over
my awkward frame. They cluck
their tongues and whisper sounds
that mix with the tones of the 8 o'clock
train whistles at the end of the tracks.
I force my legs, leaden, one in front of the other,
nursing my small self-conscious grief
down the street. I hear mother's voice rise
again in my head.
I look back.
But the boys' shadowy faces have turned
again to Jackie and the pounding
bass of her porch speakers.
I see one rough palm take the Marlboro
from her candied mouth,
inhaling his own drag
as the looming night flickers
its ribboning darkness.
What rises tonight on David Street is dust
from sidewalk chalk, siren calls,
and the tile of a German Shepherd's
snout as it howls to the sky.
All around us, the hills hold
onto things we cannot name, the sounds
forming in our throats, little thunders
forming somewhere over their crests,
as the falcon flies out from the flock of
hemlocks into the soaring dusk.
Engines roar the wrong-way down
our one-way street while pious neighbors
jump to their feet. The Stingray spins out
of the summer gravel, Jackie's legs stretched
out and crossed over on the dash.
Umbach is thorough and musical and precise. These poems resound with the hardscrabble reality of living in a world that is sometimes harsh, but by giving voice to it Umbach also exposes the beauty.
These poems sound conversational yet have all the nuts and bolts necessary to be truly fine poems.
Reading The Pattern Maker's Daughter brings to mind Coal Miner's Daughter, it had to. And that is not a bad thing. These poems both slake and provoke curiosity about the hard earth of the middle earth kingdom of the Appalachians, the men and women who go beneath it to find the future, and Umbach doesn't slip up once. Her lens is clear, focused.
Part of this Earth
I am rooted in this Appalachian bedrock,
a sliver of the earth's volcanic events.
Ancient as Africa, shiny as new slag scraped
from our hillsides, high as the Rockies
that walled us in, (our lilting speech, our bent
shoulders and inhibitions)
as it stretched in infancy
from Mexico to Newfoundland.
Digging in childhood holes, I see
roses grown from thin patches,
seed scattered over the cracked
alley-yards, school children picking
at slim violets. Just under this surface,
I am half Piedmont; (half-woman,
half informed of my senses, traffic laws,
library etiquette); my eons keep eroding.
My origins are here (the part in my scalp,
spaces between teeth, soft bones)
in impressions on sedimentary rocks.
They speak from layers within layers, seek
the bottom of deep oceans, travel
in shallow seas, over the history of ancient beaches,
river valleys where I'm polished an rubbed.
I am shale, common and conglomerate,
(the dirty inside of a purse, caked over lipstick
torn receipts and dried gum) skeletons
of organisms drifting. I am rapidly moving streams.
Carbon rich, organic, coal, compressed.
I am evolving,
(standing up straight, learning to walk
across a room, raising my eyes from the floor)
I form a thick sequence, I stack myself
eight miles high, I am a prize
Under great heat, violent
under pressure, I am shale changed
to slate into schist. Settling into dirt,
I am shaking the hand of who I am
becoming, I am sitting on top
of a trembling earth.
The Pattern Maker's Daughter is, admittedly, right up my line. I love poems that tell stories. Sandee Gertz Umbach throws her encyclopedic knowledge of seeming everything into these poems and gives us perfect little movies. These poems resonate because they sound/are so real. We feel these experiences as though they were our own — and that is because Umbach, like all those miners, isn't afraid to go those dark places beneath the surface where the riches and the future live.
The Pattern Maker's Daughter
"Students of Appalachian (geological) patterns have long puzzled over why some of the main streams of the region depart now and then from the path of least resistance..."
From A Geography of Pennsylvania
When you were born, father, and now
when you close your eyes to dream, it's the same
patterns blinking and repeating inside you,
steady as your infant first beats that tapped out
a precise rhythm, predictable as the projects
that came across your shop desk in the mill.
Beneath my shuttered eyelids, I've told you what I see—
the splits of our region's chaotic hills and streams—
our city's glittering dust particles breaking
from bedrock into the haphazard lines of my EEG—
the ones you willed to be more measured
as you sat amidst the bustle of Neurology waiting rooms.
We carry these innate flickerings, flashings
developed in our interior worlds, mine pulsing
like strobe patterns found in our ancient strata,
yours smooth as the flat rock at the bottom
of the Little Conemaugh—both of us shaped
by the igneous outcroppings penetrating our soft shale.
When my child was one day old we slept chest to chest
and I dream I was him. It was all I could do to pry
myself from that prism of color, shape, and constant
beat. I woke jolted and eyes open to the poor
beige of the room, the solid gray sheets.
Your patterns are worn into the grids of streets which
you walk each day, while I soar above the childhood alleys
I see when making love. I hover over the roof
of the vacuum repair shop, while underneath this city
lie the old tectonic forces, anxious and dendritic
—the random points I connect in poems that tie me to this earth.
Today when you sleep, you say you see the wood patterns
created in the shops of Bethlehem Steel, the racing algebra
of exacting molds—etched numerals you branded
into each piece with metal, and the countless 5 A.M.
eggs in a cup mother placed for you on the Formica table.
For me it's the intricate patterns of stream beds winding
across the black milk of my tedious slumber—tiny looping
lines that cross the topographic maps of Johnstown—
like the inking of electrodes I produced on paper.
They call to me from their brilliant beginnings—the Appalachian Plateau
I stretch in my dreams to meet—the orogeny of the Chestnut
and Laurel Mountains—howling and breaking off
as I twist and follow their endless, erratic passageways
beckoning and born from its ridges.
Today's book of poetry LOVED this book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sandee Gertz Umbach was born in Pennsylvania. The author is a Commonwealth Speaker with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. She has a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing from the Wilkes University Low-Residency Program. She lives in Elmira, New York.
"On our life journey, there's a struggle to move forward and travel back, an ache we can almost name. Sandee Gertz Umbach throws a rope to the past, rescues her people from their floods and hungers, as her words create "golden spells of light." Luminous as any porch light, she hands us true and tender poems."
—Jeanne Bryner, Eclipse: Stories
"Sandee Gertz Umbach's The Pattern Maker's Daughter is a remarkable debut collections full of honesty, wisdom and heart. Like a fine photographer she has empathy for her subjects, an eye for the telling detail, and a commitment to the truth. She brings this community to life from an insider's perspective—these are her people, though the love she brings to these poems never slides into sentimentality or idealizing—they never lose the necessary grit. In these finely wrought poems, danger and trauma exist in the landscape, in the homes, and in the very bodies of her characters. These are simply the stories we tell each other to stay alive."
—Jim Daniels, author of Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry