“I stretch the aspen leaf between my fingers, tighter now: the reed of a flute, of anything, I think, that sings beyond this human world. I blow into it, blow again and again, badly, like a woman who has waited her whole life to claim what is holy. Tiny spurts of sound, and then, finally, a high clear blast of my breath vibrating the leaf.”
In “Heresies of the Holy,” the closing piece of Kathryn Winograd’s collection of lyric essays, Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation (http://conundrum-press.com/), the geography of her concerns is gathered, just as they are gathered and interwoven in each essay. That interweaving asks for the reader’s attention and rewards it.
Kathryn Winograd is poet, essayist, teacher, and itinerant philosopher. Into these words, this breathing language, she brings herself as girl, daughter, mother, and wife—her fears, loves, insights, and wonder. These essays both probe and sing.
I don’t know what I respond to most deeply in this work—Kathryn’s deep love of the land and natural world, the fearlessness with which she follows experience and thought, her ability to look clearly at personal pain and its aftermath, or insights so startling and direct that they remind me of poet Stephen Dunn’s words: “It’s amazing when someone gets the world right” (Walking Light). But Kathryn’s persistent words get the world not only right, but also deep, large, ancient, and renewed. Get it in all its fermenting density. Each essay is exquisitely crafted, following and fleshing out a structuring thread (migration) or concern, or following patterns of thought. Each essay circles in ways that also structure the book.
Returning to the final essay, “Heresies of the Holy,” perhaps these additional paragraph openings may offer a sense of the threads being gathered.
~ “What is grief? Or, more specifically, an aging woman’s grief?”
Kathryn looks deeply into loss, of her father, of her mother’s losses as she ages, of the losses surrounding her own rape as a young teen, of the haunting loss to suicide of a woman poet she knew and whose work she is reading, even as she writes these essays. What does aging mean for a woman, a mother, a writer?
~ “A Navajo once told me that if a menstruating woman nears a man who has pierced himself in dance, his blood flowing too, she interrupts his communion with the spirit world and so must leave.”
Kathryn brings into each essay what she must touch, must deal with. And that ranges widely through history and culture. Like Emily Dickinson, her business is often circumference.
~ “Flowers. Menses. Life-essence, the prehistorics called in wonder the letting of this wise blood, the only time blood sheds ‘without wounding,’ they said.”
As a writer and thinker, she rarely invites just one idea, but instead, many. Each is drawn into the net of the essay to be considered with attention.
~ “Yet I remember the shame of my daughter when she was young and her menstrual blood spilled, strong and unexpectedly, when she was riding her bike blocks from our home.”
Persistently, insistently, Kathryn draws the personal into the net of her thought and feeling, for how lasting could a truth be that couldn’t contain the distant and the close, the idea and the flesh of experience.
~ “Wordsworth said it is impossible to speak of grief or loneliness when you are in the grip of it.”
Although William Wordsworth spoke of recollecting in tranquility, Kathryn actively reclaims. Though the word reclaim means to restore, something we and the land require, the root of claim is to cry out against. To reclaim is to cry out against again.
~ “Did my woman poet know this too?”
“This” is the “nothing” that Kathryn’s mother described herself as having at fifty.
~ “An elk bugles now, a sound strangled, hoarse, desperate.”
And the words come back to the land that is the bedrock of these essays. And return journeys, too, of sex and circadian longing, of instinct, migration, and pilgrimage.
~ “Baptism, the priest told us, cleanses the sin of the first man from the soul as water touches the body” and “The Seven Sacraments say, but even a layman or a woman, nay, even a pagan or heretic can baptize.”
The particular baptism is that of a smooth-brained baby, one who would die young. The mother and child together form a question, the mother “nursing, beatific; this child, this blind unthinking creature.” They too must be part of the essay’s, of the writer’s universe.
~ “I found the skull of a hawk on these rock once, what I know my slightly pantheistic mother would love, and what I think my dead woman poet might have liked, too.”
The natural world brings the comfort—no, not comfort—but perhaps in the thisness of the skull, as in rock, wind, lichen, a peace, a place for the spirit to still itself.
~ “Even here, in this place I think of as holy, my neighbors fence their land and warn me of prosecution for my trespasses.”
The holy here is not that of religion but of the spirit. Of the soul. What comes to my mind is Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” especially the lines “The soul descends once more in bitter love / To accept the waking body / …” and “the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating / of dark habits, / keeping their difficult balance.” Kathryn’s words move to find balance even as she carries “. . . the poems of a dead woman inside me.”
~ “One early evening, a deer strayed from the woods to the east across the meadow behind our cabin.”
The superimposed images that appear as dusk deepens combine her silhouette and the deer’s presence, and the paragraph ends with a sense of the essay’s movement: “. . . we stared through the porch railings at each other, cusp of deer and woman, cusp of what is holy and what is not, until the inevitable darkness.”
~ “My woman poet stares down that last moment from her stadium as I do now from this high, lonely place.”
With that acknowledgment of resemblance, Kathryn stretches the aspen leaf of the opening paragraph and blows. And there is a response.
~ “Silence. Silence.
And then an elk bugles and five appear over the ridge, stand listening to me.”
The resonant lyric essays of Phantom Canyon embody borders, trespass, and permeability. They include the body, the natural world, the cosmos, and multiple layers of time, human thought, and belief. They are breathtaking. Breath giving. Microscope and telescope. Although each essay is a whole, there is also a story that unfolds as the reader travels deeper into and through Phantom Canyon, up to this pilgrim cabin, center of a contour map.
As for the canyon’s phantoms, they are “appearance or illusion without material substance,” as the dictionary offers first. But another definition is this: “an illustration, part of which is given a transparent effect so as to permit representation of details otherwise hidden from view.” Kathryn Winograd reveals the otherwise hidden as she writes the Rockies and the world.
Kathryn Winograd (kathrynwinograd.com) received a Colorado Book Award in Poetry for Air into Breath, a Colorado Artist Fellowship, a Rocky Mountain Women’s Institute Associateship, and a Colorado Endowment for the Humanities Grant. One essay was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011. She is the author of three teachers’ reference books, including Stepping Sideways into Poetry. She is a full-time faculty member of Arapahoe Community College, where she directs the Writers Studio. She is also a Faculty Mentor in poetry and nonfiction in Regis University’s Mile High MFA in Creative Writing program.