In January, the Geese
by B.J. Buckley
26 poems ~ 48 pages
Price: $16.00 + $3.00 postage
Publisher: The Comstock Review, Inc.
To Order: www.comstockreview.org
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
It was in the summer of 1994 that my family and I were driving through Montana enroute from Illinois to Seattle. We got an early start out of Bozeman. As we approached an outcropping of boulders surrounded by a stand of pines, we beheld a partial arc of rainbow presenting just above the rocks, slicing through the spruces. This scene, a kind of spiritual awakening, planted seeds of desire to return.
B.J. Buckley’s latest collection, In January, the Geese, centers me in the environs of Montana. (Without having to go there!) Winner of the prestigious Comstock Poetry Review’s 35th Anniversary Poetry Chapbook Contest, this thin volume reads as big as Montana’s azure-cyan sky.
While we live in the seemingly technologically advanced 21st century, there is little hint of this in Buckley’s treatment of life in Montana. This is a poet who loves the life she lives. She doesn’t depend on cell phones with all the attendant gadgetry. She is close to the land. I can think of no better trait for a poet. Absent such closeness, poets are bereft to write with insight and truth.
As I read these poems Buckley’s “big-shouldered,” earth-bound brogue lassoed me. Her diction is precise and burley. She has lived her poems.
She opens with “Upthrust;” which describes a coulee (gully or ravine) belching out what lies beneath. Note her vivid terms in this excerpt:
Frost heaves itself from the ground: everything
buried begins its slow swim to the surface.
Fields sprout stones, small hills of barbed wire
and baling twine lift overnight from plowed
Not a word is wasted as the poet paints a word-picture better than any artist. Readers need this lead-poem for context. The coulee provides a snapshot of life and sets the collection’s tone: “Deep in coulees / where the dead have long buried the dead–/ mare with her colt caught breech half born, / gutshot deer, lost lamb–the soft earth/ that swallowed them opens its mouth, / spits back their bones like pearls.”
The title poem, “In January, the Geese,” inaugurates Buckley’s telescoping of seasons. Like the Big Sky region itself, transitions are subtle and signaled by familiar things:
in their long strings every morning
in the pastel sky twining
south and west and east,
towards the fields of stubbled barley
and dry grasses and withering
winter wheat, every evening returning
all degrees of north
to the shallowing stock ponds
As the poem continues for a total of 49 lines, the line breaks suggest the familiar shape of fowl in flight. In gorgeously descriptive language Buckley treats her readers to scenes observed from on high: the shallowing stock ponds, the little flows in the coulees, crowds of playground children, the quiet of Montana sunsets. I have never encountered a richer depiction of landscape, of wildlife … the way things are to a poet who soars within the long string of geese.
Late afternoon is the setting for “At Sun River,” where we find “two old men cleaning their catch … their knives quick and sure / as they slit shining bellies from anus to jaw.” Buckley places me at the scene. I inhale the cold spring air, smell the fishermen’s bodies in need of a bath and deodorant. I’m with them on muddy slopes and in the shadows of pine trees … I feel their contentment … their inner peace. I wish the same for myself.
In “Seed” Buckley explores the “fragile boat of time: death, rebirth, / each infant kernel coded by its mother / plant with the hour of life’s return.” Continuing, the poem takes on a unique religious flavor that surprised me at the end.
In Illinois, we see “Boxelder Bugs” every spring. Believe me, you’ve never seen them in the way Buckley describes these unique creatures.
Transitioning into summer, I would be remiss if I failed to call attention to Buckley’s world of birds, animals (wild and domestic), trees, flowers, and insects. I quit counting after about three dozen mentions! B.J. Buckley cares about the environment. Her poems are filled with pathos for the land and the life it breathes. That said, she is no one’s political pawn. She tells the truth as she sees it.
“Pronghorn Elegy” describes these lovely creatures who, by nature, need “the openness of space.” They often find themselves hopelessly entangled in man-made obstacles of barbed wire. Their antlers become their prisons. In response:
“ … some of us break locks
on head gates. Some of us cut wire in the dark.”
“Infinite Haze, September” describes the natural phenomenon of a forest burn. Through the device of personification, Buckley has me choking in smoke rolling in “like fog, restless [italics mine] across the fields of shorn hay.” The haze disrupts the life of pheasants in courtship. A fox is caught by hot embers when the wind suddenly shifts. Buckley’s language is palpable in describing grasshoppers leaping frantically “from the stiff shards of iris and peony. There is so much more.
For B.J. Buckley, In January, the Geese, comes full circle from “Upthrust,” to the last line of the last poem, “Last Rites.” In this poem, a widower, weathered by the misfortunes of life, finds strength and value listening for the voices he once knew, life spreads out before him, the wild geese flying home.