The loudest voice in Poems Across the Big Sky
, an anthology of Montana poets put out by Many Voices Press, is that of editor Lowell Jaeger, who teaches creative writing at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell. A first read-through of the book left me thinking I’d just heard a weirdly democratic elegy for the state and people of Montana—a postmortem exhortation, a memorial service where anyone with even a passing acquaintance to the deceased took a moment to say their piece.
Actually, it was the death of three of Jaeger’s students, and the fact that his feet kept bumping against boxes of their lives’ work stowed underneath his desk, that inspired Jaeger to compile this volume in the first place. He says he wanted to give these students’ voices a more sonorous space than the dumpster, a more graceful conclusion than silence: He “wanted to give them community,” and envisioned a connection brimming between all current Montana writers who were scratching out poems underneath the same Big Sky. So he called nine other Montana poets, asked them to select nine other poets they admired, and the project was born.
Perhaps “born” is the wrong word—remember, this collection bears the ring of the posthumous, littered with muted keening, the colloquial “useta” (as in “used to”) and the summation: “Home is where/ children leave and where/ the dead go.”
There are three poems that best capture the tone of this book. The first is Jaeger’s “Nobody Special,” a sort of heralding of the common man that sends the opposite message of the title, and sets up Jaeger’s folksy, inclusive attitude.
Then there’s a poem by Aunda Cole, Jaeger’s late student. Jaeger writes that his eyes were not “opened to the profundity of her unassuming songs,” until he read them at her funeral—indeed, presentation, as an elegy or in an anthology, can inflate the status of an otherwise commonplace poem. Cole’s “Last Day,” a predictable “smell the roses” piece, acquires poignancy because the poet’s last day has passed. A few pages later, Jim Harrison’s poem improves with each rereading, and ends with the aphorism, “Death steals everything except our stories.”
Stories abound in this anthology and often they are stories about death. One that resonated with me was about a Californian who attempted “the perfect dive” off of the Higgins Avenue bridge—that’s the sort of proximity-impact I’d expect from a regional anthology. But even odder was the note of praise carried throughout the poem, from the validating title, “Weightless Spray of the Perfect Dive,” to the diver’s father’s support of his tragic effort, to the equivocal conclusion: “They could not say whether/ such a thing should never have happened.”
The theme of passing extends throughout the book in meditations on the loss of culture, identity, innocence, mothers, wives and dignity—the worst, I think, comes on page 160, when “We go on praying to Earth/ and to us Earth says, / No.” There’s also a critical mass of poems that meditate on nature, hunting and praise of Montana’s culture, landscape and wildlife.
The second overarching theme is, of course, community. Community is when Zan Bockes’s villanelle (Yes! Form poetry!) notes, “The voices murmur,” directly after he asks, “Who am I?” Community is what Irvin Moen was getting at when he wrote a poem praising his niece for throwing an impromptu footrace to “turn to your friends because they were your friends.” Likewise, the community-making agenda of this anthology fosters inclusion over competition. This makes for a mixed bag in terms of quality. I found some arresting selections, but I also found a few careless typos, and a few patently uninteresting poems.
Admittedly, when a reader looks at 171 poems, written by everyone from a slew of Missoula-made MFAs, war veterans, Native Americans, cowboy poets, country women, 15-year-old girls, hunters, gatherers, etc., she’s bound to find something that misses her subjective criteria completely, and another that hits it dead-center. For example, I’m a big sucker for female-authored accessible poems that extend ordinary events into something subtly and mournfully metaphysical in the last few lines. June Billings Safford’s “First Chore” is consequently a big hit. As a bit of a language nerd and an academic interested in oral history, I’m also all about Lois Red Elk’s bilingual “The Horses are Dancing.”
Biases aside, some poems are indisputably successful. Selections such as M.L. Smoker’s “Equilibrium” achieve the collection’s overt and latent purposes beautifully, but her wish that “we could break back these bones/ and form a new ceremony from each of our losses” is an exceptional fusion of community making and elegizing, rather than a standard for this collection. While many of the Poems Across the Big Sky
are undoubtedly well-rendered, the blur of thematically related works makes it difficult to find them as interesting, remarkable or insightful as they might be when presented in another context—say, for example, one without a slight editorial tendency to “turn to your friends because they are your friends,” and not necessarily because their poems can stand alone.