Wednesday, June 9, 2021

 


The Clearing

by Allison Adair
(Milkweed Editions, 2020) 

Reviewed by Natalie Homer 

     

“I didn’t know how to save things,” says the speaker of “Miscarriage,” and this echo haunts the rest of Allison Adair’s beautiful, melancholic debut, The Clearing. Heartbreaking tenderness toward vulnerable people, animals, and landscapes characterize the speakers of many of these poems—concern for “the cornered nuthatch three-quarters dead, still / resisting in the cat’s mouth, still dreaming of flight,” or for the newborn rabbit, drowning at the bottom of its own nest, never to see the light of day. These poems cup hands around the defenseless and hold them, trembling, up to the light. 

This propensity to reach out, to protect, is especially apparent in “Self-Portrait as Cenotaph,” a brilliant merging of both personal and larger, collective histories. The child speaker recalls men coming to search her yard in Gettysburg for Civil War relics—but the way the search is experienced is a clear intrusion, a rape of sorts, where the speaker and her mother “wait for a thick ambitious finger to darken the unfamiliar / bell. The hyacinth swells. A patinaed eagle means more than a good day / of digging and my mother says yes quickly, hand on the knob.” 

From her bedroom window, the speaker watches as they search,feeling a strange sense of violation and an urge to protect what she deems as vulnerable and valuable: 

        [ . . . ] They’re unzipping
        sound to see what’s beneath, probing the soft red mouth of our yard. I want to run
        out and guard the tulips in their beds, the nests underground that no one can
        see: rabbit, vole, yellowjacket. But they haven’t come for these, anything living is  good

        as dead [ . . . ]

The curious ghost-pain of a miscarriage runs throughout the collection: a ruined rug superimposed in place of the child in one poem, a bat cave in another, and—perhaps most poignantly—an  ekphrastic poem which pays homage to an infant’s funeral in a Millet painting, painted over to replace the child’s coffin with a basket of potatoes. The speakers of these poems wrestle with the inevitable “painting over” that occurs after a miscarriage—after a child that never was (yet clearly was) is gone. 

Threats of fire, flood, and most distinctly, men lurk on the edges of these poems. Not unlike the heavily mined landscape of Pennsylvania, women often find themselves tapped into, drained, and left empty. An imagining of a Civil War domestic plundering, “When Horses Turn Down the Road,” allows readers to witness a woman hiding material objects of value—rings inside a clock, candlesticks under the floorboards, and papers behind a hearthstone before soldiers storm her home. Horrifyingly, we realize that the woman cannot hide herself or her children, and therefore the only choice she has is to brace herself: 
        [ . . . ] bring the children
to your skirts. Turn their faces away
from what comes, from what will
be done, stand as these soldiers’ own
mothers would stand. The small

white shoes on the mantel can
stay—some things won’t be taken
no matter how many boots cross
the gate, no matter how wide
you open your own stone door. 

Adair draws our attention to the value of things—how what is most valuable is often least able to be protected. She forces us to look, with heartbreaking tenderness, at the people, animals, and natural landscapes who have been devalued: the dying whale making its slow descent to the ocean floor “toward special humiliation,” the bird on the attic floor “lying just / where the man stepped,” the Colorado woman stabbed to death in an act of violence the whole town saw coming but pretended not to notice, and the river turned to “sallow bile” from mine runoff. 

The Clearing is a book of prospecting, of gleaning. Through the wisdom and emotional intelligence of these poems, the reader emerges with coal in one hand and gold in the other—both the dark, rough-edged bitterness of life as well as the tenderness, empathy, and beauty.