By Cold Water
Paperback, Wayne State University Press
72 pages, $15.95
There are some poets who seem destined to write about nature. Understandably, many of these poets find Missoula, and the surrounding region, an appropriate backdrop for their work. And this, despite Missoula’s many opportunities for poets and poetry, is what makes Montana a particularly challenging muse: Once one writer connects the rivers (or the mountains or the wildlife) to poetic wonderment, it’s pretty difficult for anyone else to rhapsodize without sounding too redundant.
Therefore, it’s no small feat when one poet manages a distinct voice on this stage—which is just one of the reasons why Chris Dombrowski’s debut collection, By Cold Water, is so impressive. Dombrowski, a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Montana and a river guide, graces his poems with descriptions and observations so exquisite that the natural world appears a much more intimate place than it has for quite some time.
The speaker in “Boreal” maintains: “This time of year, a cloud is a cross, dawn is a hoof; the fir/a threadbare sail nightwinds needle through. Soon/we’ll say the leaves are turning and stand in doorways,/necks upturned at flocks of geese, leaves at our feet/shuffling, as if there were somewhere to go.” While Dombrowski evokes familiar images of the natural world, the effect of this usage is—refreshingly—a rather unfamiliar one. By contending that the “cloud is a cross” and “dawn is a hoof,” he tilts the imagery just so, as though beckoning the reader to lean in a bit closer and perhaps see something differently. When, in the stanza’s final passage, the speaker predicts that soon “we’ll say the leaves are turning…” the habitual musings of the change in season is charged with a new light, a new way of contemplating it.
One reason why Dombrowski’s poetry stands out is found in the collection’s title: By Cold Water. Notably, this title is not the title of a poem within the collection, but a title created for the sole purpose of bringing all the poems together, suggesting a direction for how we might approach them. The use of the preposition implies, quite sensibly, that something lies by the cold water—leaves and pebbles, maybe a fishbone or two, and people. Men and women abound in these poems with the tantalizing seduction of ghosts with many tales to tell. In this sense, Dombrowski deftly uses the hint of narrative in many of the poems, adding yet another dimension to them. The effect is similar to that of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” a painting that illustrates how a figure within a landscape can perpetually haunt us, compelling us into an immediate and powerful intimacy with the artist’s subjects and the world around them.
In Dombrowski’s “Epithalamium,” (meaning a poem in honor of a bride and groom), the speaker describes a couple in a meadow or forest: “They lay down where the deer had lain, where the doe with its buck fawn pressed sage into a bed, where in winter its musk melted snow. Where once she found a coyote’s skull into whose dead ears she whispered names of boys she loved and over which birds passed and shadows of birds she knew by the sun made mark of them on earth...” In another titled “Epithalamium,” the image of a bride is compared against a tree that might appear just outside her window: “Like the hair she has waited all day to let down,/a shadow unfurls from the ponderosa’s trunk: a plank/one might walk to horizon’s edge, the dark band/just stops.”
Not all the poems in this collection highlight nature. Anywhere between 12 lines and eight pages, the poems reflect on Van Gogh, motherless children and the dynamics between husbands and wives. In “A History of Barbed Wire,” the effect of one wife’s scolding of her husband at the Dekalb County Fair of 1872 (“Rita Elwood pulls her husband Ike aside/whispers under the din:.../...‘that Glidden fence was better than yours.’ ”) is untangled in a dynamic three-act poem.
Yet, nature is almost always present in the poems and acts as a primary force in the collection itself. Dombrowski’s vision seems both age-old and astonishingly modern, allowing us to bear witness to a natural world that unfolds in time with our emotions.
Sentimental musings of nature in literature can only be a single layer. Dombrowski shows how building upon that layer in order to reflect how nature is as active a force as human emotion, makes for poems that are difficult to forget, poems that reveal themselves anew with every reading. Luckily for us, these are poems that beckon us to return.
Chris Dombrowski reads from and signs By Cold Water at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, April 8, at 7 PM. Free.