Friday, October 5, 2018

Cairn - New and Selected — Peggy Shumaker (Red Hen Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Cairn - New and Selected.  Peggy Shumaker.  Red Hen Press.  Pasadena, California.  2018.

Perhaps there is no better time than now to look at the very considered poetry of Peggy Shumaker.  Shumaker, as Keven Clark says in his introduction to Cairn - New and Selected, that Shumaker has "a need for inclusion and affection."  Today's book of poetry felt exactly that after reading Cairn.  We did feel included by the instantly accessible poetry of Shumaker; and we certainly felt a great affection by the time we got to the end of Cairn, all four-hundred pages.

Today's book of poetry wanted to write about  Peggy Shumaker because of her apparent need for joy.  She comes by it honesty, the need for joy.  Maybe that is the search we all need most, the need for joy.  Today's book of poetry guesses there might be some prose in Cairn but we're not certain, it all seemed poetic to us.  The prose-poems sound just like poems should when read aloud.   

Peggy Shumaker comes by her chops honestly and they are cherse.  These are poems that want to find that warm space between people, they strive to create community.  And to hold back chaos.

Owls' Cough Balls

Snake season—we bushwhack
sneezing past bobbling quail

start the unoiled windmill whir of
Inca doves

feigning wounds to draw us past
chicks and nest.

Globemallow, pinkeye bush,
childhood legends, lesions,

fears grown up with us—don't touch—stay
other, safe, apart. Mummy Mountain,

steep hillside named for the wrapped
and embalmed, the body hot

in its sarcophagus, graven
images outside of the idealized

ruler, divine, not guessing.
The soul sure for once—

this earth dances, palo verde
delirious yellow dances

blue-banded lizards skitter, waxy purple
petals on the prickly pear

samba their brief lives in splendor
then make way for ripe fruit.

Ocotillo for its cool day tangos
lush, abundant

stiff leaves secure
among thorns,

graceful droop of the sexual
blossoms, flamboyant

for their moment, this morning.
Foxtails' fine plum brushes

stroke, poke through to bare skin
skin still harboring

early morning chill of the snake nest,
coyote den, the burrows

of ground squirrels, the refuge
all creatures born of this earth

return to. Abandoned
radio spires

pick up signals
beyond our ken. Wiry

perches for three harbingers
among the spatters—screech owl

cough up
what they can't digest—

minute molars, half a skull,
femur and pelvis

mashed together, mangled
matted among clumps

of rodents' coats
of many colors

dried fur binding
this new body, matter

immobile, but filled
with stories,

left over.


The reader gets the feeling that Peggy Shumaker is a woman with great patience, and the experience to back it up.  From the start, Shumaker's poems have had the relaxed pace of a good story-teller.  These poems resist urgency and fill up that space with necessary inquiry.

Shumaker's poems are very essential in a world where truth is suspect and lies the great rhetoric of the powerful.  Shumaker says it all in her poem "Anyone Who Comes Here Must Be Transformed" when she says:

          loss's life-giving

          how to keep love

There is a certain type of bravery involved, Shumaker is fearless to be sure, when you are laying it all bare and searching for the best of us.

A Meditation

Come closer. Ask your foot to widen
as it meets the floor.

Ask twin handrails
to lead you on.

Flirt. Play
with your food.

Be hands-on
with your love.

Touch your tongue
to your teeth, fire pose.

Breathe in
Breathe out.

until language remembers you,

until words bask in your light.


Reading Cairn - New and Selected Today's book of poetry was happy to discover that Shumaker is a big believer in grace and honour and spends considerable time searching it out with these poems.  One of the ways Shumaker searches is by sharing.  

Shumaker writes about nature with both awe and simplicity.  Shumaker is trying, constantly, for the hardest thing a poet can do:  she is trying to be true.

Today's book of poetry will argue that Shumaker is totally successful.

Sand Rubies

The best treasure came to us mostly after rain, when the arroyo
rearranged itself to suit the wet. We'd have to kneel at least, or
sit quietly for a long time. This meditation turned us into vi-
sionaries, ones who could see what lay buried not far beneath.
Red glints, stones precious because they disappeared. Sand
rubies.  Deep red and transparent one moment, flecks diving
out of sight the next.  In this way, we learned to savor what is
always there, especially when we can't see it.  In this way we
learned to love ephemera: the sand of the ancient ocean, this
earth, this life, everything loaned for a brief time to us.


Our morning read was splendid.  Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, took a real shine to Peggy Shumaker, and why wouldn't she?  Cairn is a massive collection with nary a let down moment.  This morning's reading was a real pleasure for both the readers and the listeners.  Cairn lent itself to reading aloud because Shumaker imbues a calm and certain assurance to the reader.  These are journeys you are going to enjoy, be enriched by.  You can be a friend and follow.

Cairn - New and Selected is exactly what Today's book of poetry wants from a book of poetry; beautifully true and intellectually fulfilling (if Today's book of poetry can say such a thing), and emotionally satisfying.  Nothing simple about Peggy Shumaker's poetry, anyone who says so can't read.

That's the whole can of soup.

Image result for peggy shumaker photo

Peggy Shumaker
Photo: Cybela Knowles

Peggy Shumaker is the daughter of two deserts—the Sonoran Desert where she grew up and the subarctic desert of interior Alaska where she lives now. Shumaker was honored by the Rasmuson Foundation as its Distinguished Artist. She serves as Alaska State Writer Laureate. She received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Shumaker is the author of eight books of poetry, including Cairn, her new and selected volume. Her lyrical manner is Just Breathe Normally. Professor emerita from University of Alaska Fairbanks, Shumaker teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA at Pacific Lutheran University. She serves on the advisory board for Storyknife and on the board of the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation. Shumaker is editor of the Boreal Books series (an imprint of Red Hen Press), editor of the Alaska Literary Series at University of Alaska Press, poetry editor of Persimmon Tree, and contributing editor for Alaska Quarterly Review.  Please visit her website at

Peggy Shumaker
at Boston Court/Pasadena
Video:  Poetry.LA


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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