Book Review

Cedar Crossings by Alixa Doom, Blue Light Press, P.O. Box 642, Fairfield, IA 52556, 2010.

Reviewed by Judith Barisonzi

In my lifetime I’ve written a few poems that people like to read. Still, I wouldn’t put myself in the class of Emily Dickinson. Not many poets belong there. But that’s ok. The house of poetry is large, and there’s room for many of us.

There’s room for Alixa Doom, who is a very good poet. One of her strengths is her love for the land and close observation of it. The 9 ½ acres of cedar woods that she owned in the Minnesota River Valley form the setting and subject matter of her first chapbook, Cedar Crossings (Blue Light Press). Doom anthropomorphizes her cedars, giving them a human anatomy: “dusky blood flows through cedar veins” (“Heart of Cedar,” p.24).  She sees the cedar as female: “in the red season of reseeding/she wears tiny blue berries for jewels” (’Cedar Crossings,” p. 1). Doom writes not only of the cedars themselves but of the wild things that inhabit the woods--the cedar waxwings, with “the silky brown gloves of their sleek bodies” (“Cedar Waxwings,” p. 5); “the torrent of oriole/and hummingbird,/the blue burn of bunting” (“October,” p. 18); the deer, and “their flicker/in the cedar, and the soft hush afterwards” (“November,“ p. 19); and even the coyote, who “travels the earth/as if its heart/carries no weight at all” (“Coyote,” p. 23).

To Doom, the cedars possess a connection with the natural world that transcends time. In my favorite poem, “Village” (p. 28-9), she meditates on the possible former existence of a Native American village on her land. She starts with looking for an arrowhead “found by the young,/who believe they will live forever.” She then “enter[s] the cedars/and the bergamot and yarrow” and finds everywhere “this insistence/on continuance,” with “the song/pouring out of the belly”. As Doom asks, “Who knows the shape the soul takes/when the skin lets go?” the cedar’s roots wrap “around remains of the village,” and “the dead come near.” The poem continues:

            Absence … brews in the dark jar of cedar,
            the shade deep with
            what we didn’t know we loved
            until it has already left us. (p. 29)

But Doom does know what she loves:

I no longer buy tickets to anywhere.
Turning off on Deer Run Trail, I climb the hill
through the sun and mist of cedars.
The slower I go, the more time there is. (“Cedar Kin,” p. 30)

And the book concludes as she identifies with her beloved trees:

            I become filled with this place,
            the broad green arms,
            the quiet affection of cedar sisters. (“Cedar Kin,” p. 30)

“The slower I go, the more time there is”—Doom has some fine lines. She has a coherent vision and a sense of place. But why did I start my review mentioning that I’m not Emily Dickinson? It’s because Alixa Doom is not Mary Oliver plus Rainer Maria Rilke—even though the blurb on the back cover of the collection tells us that she is all that and more—“a female Orpheus [who] moves between two worlds.” Let’s not overdo this. Every poem of Oliver’s takes us to someplace familiar yet at the same time new and surprising; Rilke is a transformative poet with an astonishing command of language and metaphor; Orpheus could charm the gods of the Underworld. Alixa Doom is a readable poet that anyone who lives close to the natural world will enjoy. But she’s not Oliver plus Rilke. Sometimes she sounds—well, trite:

            Today all the wisdom of their worldly ways
            blossoms in the tree tops
            “Look,” it tells us,
            “simply love this life
            and each other. (“Cedar Waxwings,” p. 6)

Sometimes she slips into abstraction: “it [a tent] has a sense of self-containment/that I revel in like a newfound serenity” (“Wild House,” p. 12). Or she has not searched for the exact, sensory word: “Early morning the sweetest sounds/I have ever heard fill the air around me” (“Wild House,” p. 13). Occasionally her thought is muddled, as when she tells us that “only a saint could approach wild turkeys/living out their lives in seclusion” (“Wild Turkeys,” p. 25). Who is the saint here, the turkey or the human? And sometimes she seems not to have earned the language she uses: “the river unravels from the endless spool of its soul”(“River in Springtime,” p. 26). Do rivers have souls? Maybe so, but you need to show us, not just go for an easy word.

Well, none of us is perfect. Even Orpheus didn’t get Eurydice back. Doom makes up for an occasional sloppiness of language by phrases like “The cedar is pregnant with snow and/the snow is pregnant with cedar” (“Winter Trilogy,“ p. 21) or, quite simply, “This morning I feel I could live forever” (“Monarch,” p. 10).  These are moments of experience worth sharing. I’ll bet Emily Dickinson would like them too.

Judith Barisonzi has been a Wisconsin resident since 1966, and she now lives among the lakes and woods of northwest Wisconsin. Semi-retired from teaching English at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, she gives workshops in creative writing and memoir writing, participates in several local writing groups, and publishes poems in local and national magazines.