Rivers in the Subconscious: A Review of Buried Choirs by Katherine Rauk

Buried-Choirs-CoverIn her first full collection, Katherine Rauk takes us on a classic heroine’s journey, but with this warning – you may not find resolution, and if you do, it will be in the journey itself, which is tense, internal, and expansive. These poems borrow from a selection of archetypes and characters, both literary and historical, to examine the female experience, and they dismiss the upbeat societal narrative. Instead, they delve into women’s actual lived experiences to illuminate a truer storyline.

Readers can intimate Rauk’s intent right from the cover. Her title is taken from the poem “The Clearing,” and the dichotomy of its words – “Buried Choir” – tells us that we are being invited to a world of voices that are both suppressed and uplifted. Fred Michel’s carefully selected cover art, “Papaver somniferum,” illuminates Rauk’s surface message of seasonality in the human condition. The skeletal seed heads are a Greek chorus, singing of the subterranean river that weaves its way through the book. The photo also hints at a deeper, more subversive message: knowledge is power, and it may be too dangerous for some readers. Papaver somnifeum is the infamous opium poppy. The flower makes an appearance midway through the book, with “faenas unfolding/in the black/bullrings of their eyes.” Balm for suffering, dangerous medicine, it is also a common garden annual. In a bizarre quirk of legal code, it is perfectly fine to grow this flower in your own yard – unless you know what you are growing. The mere awareness that your grandmother’s “bread seed poppy” is the same plant from which we derive heroin makes its cultivation a criminal act. These plants are our signal that Rauk is offering us an enticing but fraught condition of knowledge about ourselves and others. Caveat emptor.

Rauk’s introductory poem, “A Preamble to an Explanation of You,”begins with a reflection on innocence. The speaker is remembering a time before life imbued her with the dubious faculty of experience. She is “a vacant elevator/opening and shutting uselessly on each floor.” We don’t see her path, “the conveyor belt of the ocean never carried me away,” nor do we meet any of the incarnations that will serve as teachers throughout the book. It does not take long, though, for Rauk to invite us onto her ferry. Allusions to rivers and dark waters abound, beginning with a direct reference to Charon, “the weight of that coin/I am always hiding beneath my tongue,” in “The Greatest Show.” This dark journey, these travails, will serve as guides to transform the speaker by story’s end.

Rauk displays a facile ease with foreshadowing. Introductory poems reference “just a dress” and “that white cloud” soon leading to “Clogged Only with Music like the Wheels of Birds.” This defiant response poem addresses Billy Collins’ “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” and this Dickinson is keeping her damned dress. Rauk’s Dickinson rejects her male rescuer, rejects his idea of her innocence and need for release. “I’ll give you the slip,” she tells him. “I am queen/of seeming. When I said my unmentionables/are impenetrable, I only meant/sometimes.” This Dickinson/Persephone has no need for the male gaze. She is sexualized, self-actualized, and resides in an intellectual realm of her own choosing, in “unrolling reams of sky.”

The parade of literary figures educating both reader and speaker continues. An unexpected amalgam of Delilah and Rapunzel is “standing in the doorway with brambled hems,” reminding us that the resigned older woman in the classroom was once a hopeful girl, and that this is a journey every woman will make. We glimpse Lot’s unnamed wife “wheeling over those cliffs of salt,” and Virginia Woolf tempts us with blackberries and river water. Elisa, the mute princess from Anderson’s “Wild Swans” hovers in the periphery of consciousness, disguising herself with walnut stain. As the speaker inhabits each persona, we reflect on the roles of maiden, mother, and crone in the lives of women; the speaker projects her own daughters forward in time, and into these roles. We meet them as infants, “my greedy rosebud, my endless mouth, my immense/violin,” but before long they “pocket lipstick from checkout lines/...wait/at the mall for boys to buy them Slurpees.”

Serious and introspective as the poems are, Rauk still injects wry and sometimes raunchy humour into her work, particularly as the poems progress toward maturity. The candy in the “Enormous Dream Gumball Machine” serves as “eyeballs of the dead.” In “My God,” the speaker reflects on her relationship with an emasculated deity whose “crotch/...is a vacancy sign at some roadside motel,” and pokes fun at her own tendency toward hyperbole – “I was gathering cloud-/berries (yes, cloudberries/are a real thing that I didn’t make/up).” In “Introduction on How to Open a Gift that May or May Not Be a Sausage,” we are regaled with Jesus’s “Sermon on the Meat,” flying pigs, the etymology of wurst, and learn that “a sausage is the size of a you-know-what, but a mustard seed is the size of what you know.”

Inhabiting the terrain of free verse, Rauk toys with form, utilizing couplets or prose poems as suits her content. She stops the reader with forced caesuras in “Night Music” – “(a chorus)           (a season)           (an insect);” she forces us to dance between lines with enjambments that advantage hyphenated and compound words: “that can hitch/hike up the high/way of song to hot/wire the corpse,” or “Please pray for my crash/course in Small Engine Repair,” or “now and again to go black-/berrying...” Though she most often elects to break lines in accordance with sound, Rauk is not above displaying her own virtuosity. In a number of pieces, such as “Poem in the Shape of a Window or a Brick,” she skillfully justifies her lines to produce block poems, rectangular as newspaper columns.

If spacing and breath are given careful consideration in every piece, pacing throughout the book is also managed thoughtfully. Tone rises, falls, rises again, and finally settles in the closing pieces – “Love in the Long Marriage” (with a nod to Kumin), “Reckoning,” and “A Small Hymn.” These are quieter, more reflective, and have spacing which causes the reader to stop frequently along the way. The final poem, “A Small Hymn,” echoes back to the title page, scattering seeds from work that germinated through the course of the writing. Rauk speaks to the universal “Whatever’s...looped/in the wheelhead of a seed: thank you for that.” She stands on the shore, listening to “whatever choirs, or cries out/or sleeps in the riverbed/while the water runs on, unglistening.” This has been her moment to invite us on a fragment of the journey, in “the secret altars night builds/in every closed flower,” and like her we can only imagine what will someday spring from the buried choirs “we will never get to see.”
Sonja Johanson has recent work appearing in the Best American Poetry blog, BOAAT, Epiphany, and The Writer’s Almanac. She is a contributing editor at The Eastern Iowa Review, and the author of Impossible Dovetail (IDES, Silver Birch Press), all those ragged scars (Choose the Sword Press), and Trees in Our Dooryards (Redbird Chapbooks). Sonja divides her time between work in Massachusetts and her home in the mountains of western Maine. You can follow her work at www.sonjajohanson.net.