ten mile creek almanac
by Grace Hughes Chappell
27 poems, 30 pages
Publisher: Finishing Line Press, 2019
To order: Amazon.com
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Grace Chappell has lived nearly all her of her adult life in northern California. After raising their children in San Francisco, she and her husband decided they needed to continue having a challenge in their lives. They bought a small place in Mendocino County on acreage along a feeder stream of the Eel River and for some twenty-two years or more have cultivated a garden and an apple orchard there. Chappell’s work has been published on paper and online by, among others, The San Francisco Chronicle, Short Fiction by Women, Paddock Review, Your Daily Poem, Front Porch Review and A Year of Being Here. This is her debut collection.
An almanac is defined as ‘a register of the days, weeks and months of the year, with astronomical events; anniversaries, etc.’ and it forms the narrative structure of this collection of 27 poems which is divided into four distinct sections that follow the seasons of the year. Ten Mile Creek is the name of the feeder stream to which I alluded in my opening paragraph. It is situated in the California coastal mountains and is the place where Chappell and her husband have planted their garden and orchard. In her Foreword, Chappell says ‘The seasons have taken on new importance for us, each season moving inexorably from the previous towards the next with no stasis, and autumn now, not spring, seeming the true beginning of a year.’ This is why the collection begins with autumn and then works its way chronologically through to summer.
There is a sense in which these poems are moulded by the weather. In ‘come winter and rain and wind’ there is a waiting game going on:
nobody knows which year
in every one hundred years
the river next to the piney woods will lift
in its banks to reach high ground…
The drowsiness of summer is conveyed in ‘summer solstice’ and the effects of drought are effectively portrayed in ‘in accumulating dust’.
Chappell employs some lush vocabulary: ‘madrone berries,’ ‘calypso orchids,’ ‘rhododendron glens flaming like blood’… through her naming of specific fruits and plants. The trees also make their presence felt, in particular, the ‘piney woods’, ‘piney’ being an alternative spelling for ‘pinery’. Many species of birds fly through these poems including one, a grosbeak, that gets a whole poem to itself. A grosbeak, I discovered, stands for any of a variety of finches, buntings and weavers with thick heavy seed-crushing bills such as the hawfinch and the cardinal. The name comes from the French gros (thick) and bec (beak). Another animal that is given a whole poem to itself is the green racer. This name refers to any of several non-venomous North American snakes of the genus Coluber.
Often, we see beyond the garden and the orchard when our focus is turned towards the California hills. These hills make several appearances. On two occasions their physical outline is described in maternal terms. ‘The hills around here’ opens with these lines:
the hills around here lounge,
indolent matrons, thighs drawn up
under the blanket of grass
falling away from one another….
In a second poem, ‘California hills’, we read:
these women-shaped thighs
a population strewing
itinerant uncombed oaks –
In another poem about the hills, Chappell employs the Spanish term ‘las abuelitas’ denoting that she views them as ‘grandmothers’.
This collection celebrates the natural world in all its changing seasons as revealed in a particular place and at a particular time. Several of the poems are written with a wry sense of humour and others are dressed in Biblical imagery. There is a certain symmetry to the book, not just in terms of its structure but also in terms of its wording: at the start, ‘evening shuts down our day’ and at the end ‘an August evening’ is ‘winding down’. A most enjoyable read.