History of Grey by Katie Kingston
(Main Street Rag Publishing Co, 2014)
reviewed by Diana Anhalt
Katie Kingston’s latest collection, History of Grey, explores lives that lie in-between—in that area beyond judgment, which is neither black nor white. In addition to the grey in the title, colors vibrate in these poems. They are exhilarating and full of life. Fusing history and legend, they cover a region encompassing Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Traveling from past to present and back again, they imply that the past informs the present; the present the past. Time flows like the river, El Rio de Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio (The River of Souls Lost in Purgatory), introduced in the book’s opening and its voyage speaks of struggles and perseverance.
The first of the book’s three sections introduce two figures, Umaña and Bonilla, roughly translated from Spanish as Human and Beautiful. Part history, part legend, the two are reputed to have set out in search of Quivira, a utopia noted for its great wealth. They meet their fate on the banks of the Colorado river, El Rio de Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio. According to legend, when Bonilla and Umaña die, their souls end up in that grey area, located midway between heaven and hell. In the poem “Flood,”
Bonilla laughs. His mouth fills with water,
a traveler of mirrors toward sea
with a voice like bees in the crabapple.
The opaque world of indigo rapids splashes
his rugged lips. He cares about sound,
how the river evolves its own name,
Purgatorio, Purgatoire, Picketwire.
More recent history—the 19th and 20th centuries—is depicted in the second section of the book with a series of highly lyrical poems, many in the first person from the points of view of women. Often they portray their lives on the frontier, their struggles and yearnings. The personas speak for themselves and are never idealized, never self-pitying. They inhabit that middle ground marked by uncertainty—a grey area undefined by right and wrong, a place not unlike purgatory, where suffering is the norm. This is their history. Like most women of the time, they exist on the margins of society, and here Kingston captures their voices, the reality of their day-to-day lives. Catherine German, a girl held captive by the Cheyenne in Kansas in the second half of the 19th century, wonders whether she has been stolen and sold again. A laundress at Fort Kearney, Wyoming, writes in a journal of her night visitors and the pleasures she takes in her simple life. Among the most compelling is a Colorado miner’s wife who studies her daughter’s hands “as she lifts chunks into wheelbarrows”; a woman whose own mother told her “it would be this way / child after child, the sky without pelicans”; a woman who finds solace in her own voice, “whispers the color blue / just before snow releases down feathers, / eclipses the sun.”
Because of their honesty and simple, straightforward tone, “Unwritten Letters from Josefa Carson to Kit” are particularly moving. In this poem, Josefa’s words are punctuated throughout with the refrain, “I remember your fingers,” evoking their intimacy. She writes:
I am waiting for you, dear husband,
to return with your company of Ute,
your tobacco pouch sweetened with candy,
pockets teeming with buffalo nickels,
to return with your feet blistered,
your hair sullen, your skin tinged to rosa.
Characteristic of Kingston’s writing is her ability to individualize her subjects and avoid stereotypes in order to capture their sense of reality. This is evident in a poem like “Stampede,” where the speaker remains anonymous:
In my wilderness warriors
rise up like hornets, women like spiders.
Flutes serenade wheatgrass. Water
lifts its voice. I see blue windows,
yellow willows, red clouds. I see
turquoise, drums, corn dances.
In my wilderness I hear pick axes,
chisels. I hear horses.
To a great extent, her ability to use vivid, evocative language makes her work so memorable. In “Relocation of Old Sopris Cemetery” she writes:
[…]When I leave,
names trail me like children, sun
spilling down their backs
into their shoes. Sunshine
flicks celadon through poplars,
bleaches tombstones, turns
white pickets to grey. Erases.
Although grey may figure in Kingston’s title and much of her work here deals with life’s grey areas, color—though sometimes muted (white, black, rust)— appears throughout. Her work is insistently visual and often references works of art. They appear in such poems as “Bonilla’s Portrait,” “Bonilla as Artist,” “History of Grey” and “River Canvas,” where she writes:
I have been thinking about your painting all weekend,
the breast dissected into angles, the coffin floating
like a barge through the faces of the living, a woman’s neck
in layers of white. And what is that color, the one
that resembles a vein of rust in candlelight?
This last example from the third section of the book is one of thirteen poems that take place in the present. Here Kingston alludes to her work as a teacher, drawing from her students, her youth, and to scenes from everyday life.
In an attempt, perhaps, to illustrate the flow of time, how history repeats itself, she terminates where she began, in the past. In her final poem, Bonilla gives Umaña directions:
If you want to get to the heart, study the underbelly
of clouds just after daylight, learn their vaporous language
before it dissipates. The bone sky knows marrow,
While Kingston possesses the skill to create gorgeous imagery and give life to voices that are singular, what sets her apart from other merely competent poets is her ability to summon complexity of meaning. She transforms the “in-between,” the gray, into more than just a place or situation. In her words, these become a frame of mind. To that she adds language of depth and dimension. Long-legged and bold, these poems travel through centuries. They cross many lives and bring her full circle, starting the collection and ending it with a river called Purgatorio.