Swimming the Eel by Zara Raab, David Robert Books, 2011. $20
Reviewed by Athena Kildegaard
The fugue is a useful way to think about how Zara Raab has built her first full-length collection, Swimming the Eel. Raab's poems are lyrical and narrative, but the story they tell moves in and out from poem to poem just as the theme of a fugue is passed among voices. Raab tells about her grandparents and other family members who made their way west from Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Missouri, to California and eventually to the Eel River in central California. This is a quintessential American story—of leaving home, going West, making something out of the land, struggling, and surviving. Readers will no doubt hear echoes of their own family's history.
The story begins with Alonzo and Frank Hand heading west. Raab says of her grandfather, Alonzo, “If I were this man, I'd be / content to settle down, but he's young / and brash, and follows a filigree // of trails heading West from the Lolo / across deserts as far as Eden. / In those valleys his voice still echoes.” Many voices echo in this collection, including Alonzo's mother, his bride and her sister, among others. As Raab says, in “You Never Know,” “and while the past is not present, / . . . the past is often home, / neither past nor absent.” Raab is haunted and enlivened by the past, a past that includes the land and the first peoples on that land, as well as the particulars of her family history.
These are poems to read aloud for their delicious music. Here is the first stanza of “Nell's First Year”:
In spring, we walked the Elder by alder
and elk's clover all the way to the sea,
teal and gray, and skirted there the tangled
strands of coppery seaweed, the blind eel.
And here is a stanza from “Trees” in which we can hear Raab's deft use of rhyme:
Skittered by winch and windlass
they massed at the river's bend
with the freshwater bass,
met there by truckers who send
their loads to the sawmills
billowing smoke and ash.
This is a book that rewards subsequent readings. What higher praise could there be for a book of poetry?
From Swimming the Eel
I like dust more than knobbly gravel,
more than slivers of oak or prickly
beds of pine needle by the river.
I prefer the Mayacamas' rough
pathways, where tarmac is scarce and dust
seeps under the windows where they crack
and rides brooms of wind down the chimneys.
Dust soaks up sun and cozies with worms.
Dust rises in halos round my feet.
When I come from the river, and stand
shivering under the big pines, it
oozes and froths up between my toes.
My friend will have none of it and frowns
at me through the back kitchen window.
She's my falconer, recalling me
to perch on silk well above such things.
I, too, once yearned for fine tall houses,
and rode on the wind to the parlors.
It's true, I do not love dust more than
the grasses where deer lay down at dusk.
I am the dust lathered to dark mud
by the waters of my home the Eel.
Athena Kildegaard lives in Morris, Minnesota, on the prairie. Her books are Rare Momentum and Bodies of Light, both from Red Dragonfly Press, and Cloves & Honey, Nodin Press. In her first year of marriage she lived in southern Minnesota and her husband in Chicago, and they traveled many times across Wisconsin full of eagerness.