The first image within A Story of America Goes Walking depicts a large black “X” speeding across two pages, it’s intersection folded in the center seam. A crimson field of woodcut flowers is marked out, negated, and the junction poses a visual contradiction that stops the read before it even starts. On the next page, in the early lines of the first (and title) poem, antagonistic imagery is highlighted by the poet’s use of enjambment: “a story of America hoisted itself out of a Massachusetts pond / and was surprised by endless meadowlands / of blacktop.” What follows is an allegorical response to Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Walking where America’s narrative is thus described: it is given independence, fed grandiosity, made into a celebrity, then dies after it, “poured its heart out to the earless asphalt.” Poet Saara Myrene Raappana dances words with Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton’s striking images. Together their work represents an imbalance between Thoreau’s nature and the so-called modern advances made since his era. The collaboration shapes a response to contemporary America—and the result is as much beautiful as it is melancholic, if not maddening.
Raappana notes that, “America the story always ends in amber waves / of parking lot what could alone America the story do.” Caesurae draw a closer attention to the line’s specific words and influence a slower read. Thoreau wrote, “To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.” Raappana and Wilkins-Pepiton’s small, yet powerful book suggests an expiration of sorts. Quite possibly, Thoreau’s predicted “evil days” have arrived.
In “Once Upon America,” the path between a house and the wilderness is muddied. There seems a disconnect, a lost sense of unity. Raappana writes, “I want to pretend Terminator war, LA 2025, the fight to save humanity, / but Kel thinks forests dark with life are best for frightening.” After speaking of the “outside,” she explains that she is referring to, “the real outside.” Draw attention to her use of real to note a convoluted description of things natural and unnatural, wild and tame. This is a poem about the abuse of power. About the violence of colonization. It tells of a world in which ageless things are appropriated. Today’s world. She writes, “We invent stars to quell imagined panic,” and, “They name her home after themselves and teach her how to read.” Though this may be considered the country’s childhood, Thoreau wrote, “You may name it America, but it is not America. Neither Americus Vespucius, nor Columbus, nor the rest were discoverers of it.” Visually, Wilkins-Pepiton images stack on Raappana’s words. A lightly-stamped image of a crane seems to be fading, disappearing. While just below the poem line cuts three heavy marks, blood-bold lines, as if accentuating the bird’s fate.
“No Blood Hasn’t Been Through the Heart,” comes one page after a close-up image of a heart—as if leaning in might alter the perception of it. As if a closer look might validate the truth of Raappana’s words, “A wild lion’s heart’s about twelve hundred grams. / A man’s heart just over three hundred.” But the darker heart proves that distance does not shift reality. If anything, the varied view inspires a sense of guilt:
The blood in the brain that stroked
the brain. The blood in the nose
that choked it. The blood
of the scream. The scream
of the song and the song
of the blood. The song of the son
when he felt the glove. The song
of the glove (These will fuck you up).
The cove of the heart that folded.
What follows is a sense of trauma infused with an awakening, something needing help and love. A dysfunctional urge that left a scar. Raappana and Wilkins-Pepiton suggest a devolution of Thoreau’s lines, “but the traveler can lie down in the woods at night almost anywhere in North America without fear of wild beasts.” Readers are left to meditate on the devastation of a people and culture preceding European explorers, bearers of disease.
“Lord, Make Me a Crane,” highlights human egocentricity: “My father says they swallow stars / for ballast and real carnivals to perch upon // the mega drop and wonder at what happy screams / the people scream while harnessed in and falling.” Knowledge passed down from a parent that implies a human domination of nature. And yet, Raappana implies that though humans readily impose this power, they ultimately want to emulate a more natural, more moral state: “will the forest finally call / my name and spread its thousand wings?” An abundance of imagery targets this contradiction, incorporating the man-made world into the natural rather than the opposite sought by the preceding question:
Between lake ice and evergreens (I’ve named
Them all, the way we name things to remember what’s
stillborn to world or sky) I dream I’ll catch
a sandhill bobbing past a sag of fence, a red mask blending in
with deer apples that, iced into their branches,
rot. She’ll regard me with eyes that blink
like neon signs, then tilt her beak toward the sky
For this poem Wilkins-Pepiton inserts another image of a crane, but this time its color is a deep brown, almost black, and its head is turned towards another intersecting “X” on the facing page. The bird is poised to fly, as if ready to escape its impending future—a diminishing habitat and eventual demise.
The final three poems are set in China. Where, as in “The Wild Dogs of Guizhou,” they, “wear mud like cashmere coats / and lope along as if / no stone can stumble one / who leaps.” Here there is an acceptance, if not an incorporation of the natural world. A hearkening back to Thoreau’s time where he wrote, “Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.” The poem ends with this wildness, “If they sleep, / sleep rubs like silk across / their noses. If they rise, / they rise like the arched tongues / of thundering tigers.”
“Psalm With Pleather Teddy Bears,” poses a comparison between America and China. The woodblock stamping is similar to the crane eschewing a man-made world, but instead, a smaller bird screeches, openmouthed, at three arrowed streaks aimed for its chest. Its call is not fearful. It is angry. “She points and says my hair is yellow as there sunshine in America. // She says Transformers, Madonna, Beyoncé, Titanic. She says American girls are all in love with love. American girls are all in sex with sex. / She taps her muddy gym-shoe bears. We both laugh a bit hysterically.” This moment of embarrassment transcends the scene. It goes beyond the exchange between two world views. It circles the wound America has inflicted (or is inflicting) on the international landscape. The desire for more. A self-centered existence. Raappana keeps the moment awkward with stale laughter and Wilkins-Pepiton stamp another giant “X” over a forest scape riddled with stumps. They end the poignant collection with a question to make Thoreau proud, “Do you think every dream should be a dream that someone has of you, America?”
Tom Griffen is a writer and artist currently living in North Carolina. In 2015 he received his MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has previously appeared (or is forthcoming) in Tupelo Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, and others. Tom is also a retail educator, spoon carver, and ultramarathoner. In January 2018, Tom began a 4000-mile walk across the USA. Follow him at www.tomswalkacrossamerica.com.