Thursday, August 8, 2019

Poetry Book Review: 'murmurs at the gate'

Poetry Book Review: "murmurs at the gate" by Suzanne S. Rancourt

Poet Suzanne S. Rancourt is a multi-modal artist who lives and works in the American Northeast. She is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, with periods of active-duty and reserve service both prior to the first Gulf War and following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of her ancestors are Abenaki and Huron. Others are European. In her poetry, she honors both.

Rancourt is a practitioner of Aikido, a martial art that leverages an opponent's momentum against one's foes. She has experiences and certifications in various techniques of healing and recovery. In addition to a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, she holds a graduate degree in educational psychology.

In person, Rancourt is sly and stubborn, independent but quick to offer trust. In stories, she is celebrated for wearing red Chucks under her ceremonial garb. She carries a metaphorical long knife against inauthenticities and inequalities, which she readily draws with a slow grin. She is the embodiment of your favorite, rebellious aunt—the one person you should always seek out at a party, or in times of crisis.

One of her favorite forms of communication is a jab of insight or advice, delivered just under a rumble of conversation elsewhere in the room. Examples, taken from my own acquaintance: “Make sure to talk to him. He is an Elder.” “Never piss off a Lakota woman.” “It is time for you to take over for me as poetry editor.”

Each time, a smile at the surprised reaction she’d provoked.

Rancourt's second collection of poetry, “murmurs at the gate” (Unsolicited Press, 2019), explores themes of survivorship, as well as service to country, family, and community. (Her first collection was 2004's “Billboards in the Clouds,” Curbstone Books.) The 200-page book comprises 136 poems, presented across four untitled sections.

Her favored images are culturally broad, taken from the poet's life experiences and travels, family history and heritage. They include such disparate elements as backbones and bears, trains and tea, Buddhas and Babylon. The “gate” evoked by the collection's title can variously be read as a window to the ancient world, an opening in the veil between life and death, and the threshold to perception. While some of her topics are gritty and plain-spoken—particularly those regarding violence and women—Rancourt keeps focus on learning and healing, and singing songs of resilience.

In short, from her life and travels, Rancourt has successfully woven a rich and accessible mythology. In each poem, she variously shares a hit of wisdom, an insight to Otherness, or a potentially useful parable. As she writes in one poem (“Mish’ala”), “[…] My story is a poppyseed of delicacy, a peppercorn of truth, / an onion flake of— / salt”.

In the beginnings of another, “the final round,” she spits:
i load my gatling mouth with words
i sport ammo belts of documentation, certification
and identification criteria
pyres of brass shells gather ’round my feet
commemorative paraphernalia
strung together as a story wampum […]
Rancourt's military service is ever-present—a few poems even explicitly regard narratives of service, war, and remembrance—but does not center the collection. Instead, her military experience and vocabulary are organic—a seamless part of her larger poetic palette. This is the voice of an artist-veteran who has confidently reengaged with society and her communities, rather than remain aloof and apart from them. Note, for example, how effortlessly she buries "pressure plate" into the rich, sensory descriptions of “Grampa's House”:
We would walk through the once-horse-stall-hog-pen-now-garage
into the tool shop—our shoed feet scuffed tin shavings and sawdust
under wooden work benches soaked with bar oil, pine
and cool dampness. We walked through another door
into the summer kitchen across the Andy Warhol linoleum,
through the scent of mothballs
our weight triggering like pressure plates
the pumpkin pine floorboards that rattled
the stacked tin buckets made
by Great-Great-Grampa Daniel from Scotland
and Grammy’s bottle collection from years of dump digging adventures
Even those poems that more directly relate to military service do so in ways that build bridges. In “The Reticent Veil,” for example, one need not be familiar with tribal practices or terms, in order to appreciate the universal:
[…] they all came back at Ceremony
when me and a Dance brother folded the flag
for the last time on the last day that he handed to me
in a shape that brought it all back to twenty years before
standing on the hillside, looking over Wilson Lake
dress blues, rifles, and Corfam dress shoes cracked
the unusually frigid December where a flag was folded
and handed to me in a shape
that equaled the grief of the world
which came and went as concrete and steel crushed as
the bones and dust I wake up chewing
and it all came back
when me and a sister held taught
a Grande Parade of a royal blue silk veil
maintaining reticent tension—
lovers and wives of warriors, sisters of warriors,
mothers of sons who are warriors—
we folded sharp-angled silence with the precision of lock and load
we creased with steady cadence our losses and recognized each other
not letting go
of the fabric the wind claims for a moment
and my words fluttered
“This is not a flag we are folding.”
One of Rancourt's most-notable forms, at least to this reviewer, seems her own take on haibun—a narrative or image that ends with a related haiku. Quoted here in abbreviated form, the poem "How much guilt?" provides an example:
Gold highlights in her hair beckon like the heart of Buddha.
A star—ancestral—pierced with suffering bled into a living tree
our only hope to ascend—go home—enter into, onto, a path of service. […]

Why do we continue
to search
the hearts
to bring home
our kind?

Leave no soldier behind

How long
do we search?
As long as it takes.
Rancourt's poetry questions assumptions and authorities, providing wisdom without providing answers. No matter our own life experiences, her latest collection offers gifts on every page. All we need do is to listen. To the stories. To the songs. To the voice under the voices.

For as long as it takes.

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