Saturday, June 24, 2023

Drift Migration

by Danielle Beazer Dubrasky
(Ashland Poetry Press, 2021) 

Reviewed by Michael McLane

The constituent parts of Danielle Beazer Dubrasky’s collection Drift Migration are, in equal measure, myth and sand. From the retelling of lost loves in the section “Eurydice’s Mirror” to the sandstone compacted over millions of years in Utah and Arizona, from Arachne and the Sand Man to the glint of first sun on the desert, timeless things impose themselves again and again on everyday life and loss in these poems. Labyrinths and their endless choices, made or abandoned, shape Drift Migration, as well. They appear as a book of Borges in the Daedalus Bookshop in her childhood home of Charlottesville, Virginia, as red rock canyons of her adopted Utah home, and as her mother unraveling as if thread, “into remnants we skirt around / to disappear each into our own labyrinth.” At the heart of each, laying in wait to devour reader and speaker whole, is time. It is scaled up and scaled down—the slow unfurling of creosote and fossils in desert rock, myths born a few millennia ago, or the passing of half a century of loss. Whether deep and geologic or the cycle of seasons, miniature or sublime, its appetite remains bottomless, at times monstrous. 

Dubrasky’s poems bring all these varied scales to bear upon lives diverted or blown off course in unexpected ways, as the drift migration of the book’s title suggests, and in its finest moments, superimposes them upon one another in ways that offer up our stories of ourselves, our history, and our planet in a constant state of subversion and revision, at times fragmenting in real time. In “Winter Solstice in the Gorge,” Dubrasky begins:

Our myths turn long nights into cut evergreen

sold on grocery store parking lots, a continent away

from reindeer starving as the Arctic ice dissolves.

Only one star guides the way for diesels lit like Christmas—

miles of commerce that thread the Mojave.

Later in the poem, the face of Norse goddess Freya appears in red rock and dawn comes to a standstill “on a plateau of Kaibab sediment.” Myth rests on the surface of the land like the highway itself, a tangle of desires and needs, a route in constant need of repair and revision at mercy to powers and spectacle beyond our understanding.  

Likewise, in the book’s opening poem, “Phosphenes,” Dubrasky explores the eponymous flashes of light behind our eyelids, maneuvering from the ocean’s photic zone to “starlings in murmuration over fields in autumn” to a prisoner in solitary confinement, their loss of time and its concept manifesting in dreams and hallucinations, “phantom light projected / by cells firing in the retina.” “Phosphenes” is a perfect segue to the first section of the book, titled “The Sand Man,” its last line disappearing “around a curve through the only passage you have ever known.” This is fitting not only because of the importance of the eyes (as well as sleep and dreams) to nearly all versions of traditional Sand Man myths, whether they be the malicious or the innocuous iterations, but because Dubrasky’s version of the Sand Man is in many respects a founding myth of her life, the way in which she navigates the death of her brother which, despite her dreaming him back to existence in various ways, remains a crucible, the only passage she has ever known. The section begins with the title poem, which locates the reader immediately in the harsh desert where the Sand Man dwells:

A billboard: Stardust Motel. The exit sign: Valley of Fire.

Sand and creosote, broken bottles sparkling before his head

smashes the windshield near rows of telephone poles.

His name thrives in a desert as open as the sky

that rains down dry-throated gullies, soaks cleft mud flats.

His name lies flat on the grass near a copper vase filled

with flowers where the road ends in wind and Joshua trees. 

The poems that follow, including the ten-part poem “The Sand Man” that makes up the bulk of the section, move in and out of the siblings’ childhood in Char-lottesville, where they are happy if distant, and a revisioning of Hansel and Gretel, a desert dreamscape or hallucination where the Sand Man is a witch both beneficent and cruel:

He spins music on a turntable, snaps a dance with his fingers,

Pulls a rainbow of scarves through a ring, shades them from the sun 

[ … ]

He pours fire down the brother’s throat

and leaves him pushing grit between his teeth.

While the sister sleeps he steals her eyes

so when she wakes years later

she can’t see the split

he left in her heart.

The timelines conflate repeatedly and it is unclear how much of the speaker’s life with her brother is real and how much imagined. This is part of the Sand Man’s modus operandi, “he appears as an ordinary man taking an evening walk / except for the small bag of sand he carries. // He looks at her as though no time has passed, / as though there is not one where there were two.” Time is cruel, or at the very least indifferent, and Dubrasky perceives the desert in much the same way, at least in the early poems of the book, though there are glimmers of changes ahead, a drift towards a desert time and mindset that encompasses these more immediate losses into something both larger and more delicate. In part ten of “The Sand Man,” she writes:

There are some who wait all their lives to see

The Queen of the Desert bloom at midnight

Heady perfume opens across the desert

And she sees them all now:

Ghost flower, evening snow, Venus shooting star.

Their grace thrives despite the arid soil. 

She feels more than sees the moon-white petals

Expand in her dark place of sand and blood. 

This is not a change that occurs without many adjustments, as later poems such as “Leaving Virginia” make clear when Dubrasky describes how “Utah houses soften their angles at dusk, / hollyhocks blend with the larkspur. / Women disappear behind graciousness—a smile that tells nothing.” Later in the same poem where the Sand Man and the glass around her brother’s accident are recalled in “the grid streets of a Mormon town. / My first night in the desert, / stars I had only glimpsed through / a humid haze now glitter bright as ice.” But by the time the reader reaches the book’s final section, “Vespers in the Great Basin,” her now longtime home has changed, has unfurled in its impossibly slow way, the remnants of a now-extinct inland sea revealing themselves, as in “Retrieval,” where “in another epoch, creatures in limestone / will taste this new salt abrading / their locked beds—a trail toward home,” or in “Great Basin,” where “the sea left behind is the desert I walk through, / a sorrow slipped between trilobites and shale.” 

While old myths abound in Dubrasky’s work, their contemporary counterparts arise and revise and unravel with the same elegance and heartache as anything in the stories of Eurydice or Arachne. In “One Shot,” she describes going with her family to The Deer Hunter, the theater so crowded they are forced to scatter around the room with the speaker seated next to men who “laughed at the Viet Cong soldiers screaming at De Niro / to pull the trigger in Russian Roulette” only to find that, “when the last scene closed with a toast to that town’s lost son, // the theater silent except one of the men / beside me who wept into his hands.”

The opening night of the film coincided with the suicide of writer Breece D’J Pancake, who shot himself on the property of Dubrasky’s neighbor. The film, the suicide, the war, and the stories we tell ourselves about it, they all leave the community scattered as her family in their seats, leave “a town too stunned to speak.” The night at the theater is only one of numerous moments to subvert the more idyllic memories of Dubrasky’s childhood home, a town that has more recently become infamous for more horrific events. “Daedalus Bookshop” is a poem that is both an ode to the magic of books and bookshops and elegy for innocence, its use of James Agee’s lines about Icarus, “little child take no fright / in that shadow where you are,” taking on far more tragic connotations when we learn in the notes that the shop is just down Fourth Street from the spot where Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist, on a street now named in her honor. 

As such unraveling of stories suggests, home is a nebulous concept in much of Drift Migration, a thing both mythical and literally set in (sand)stone, at once fractured and adaptable. Though Dubrasky states in “Metamorphic” that “perhaps it is too much to carry two places at once,” it doesn’t feel as if that is the end of things, that our lives are so finite or linear. The book’s final poem, “Petroglyphs at Parowan Gap” attests to this, in its assertion and its final question: 

All things crisscross before they disappear into silence

throbbing between jutted rocks…

If we live in dreams, our eyes opening and closing to vistas we create

Unless we step into someone else’s meditation, then which ancient one

Dreamt this intersection of lines—the distant trucker, the men, and myself,

who wander past a length of road into spirals so carefully engraved?

Michael McLane is the author of the chapbooks Fume and Trace Elements. He is a founding editor of the journal saltfront, the review editor for Sugar House Review, and a poetry editor for Dark Mountain. His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Western Humanities Review, Colorado Review, Laurel Review, Interim, Utah Historical Quarterly, and South Dakota Review. He currently lives in rural New Zealand where he is completing a PhD at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.

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