by Amy Schmitz
42 poems, 69 pages
Publisher: National Federation of State Poetry Societies Press
To Order: Amazon
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
Poet J.D. McClatchy has written, Love is the quality of attention we pay to things. From the first poem I encountered in Amy Schmitz’s, Border Crossings, I was impressed with the poet’s developed ability to pay attention to the world around her. Schmitz served in the Peace Corps from 1998-2000. Her service was performed on the tiny island-country of Cape Verde. Part of an archipelago, Cape Verde is located in the Atlantic ocean, 350 miles off the coast of Africa, near Senegal. As I followed Schmitz’s poetic journey of service and community-building, I began to see, in these sensitive poems, the truth of McClatchy’s dictum, Love is the quality of attention the poet pays to things.
Schmitz’s title designates two broad divisions. Twenty poems comprise “Borders”, while twenty-two comport to the theme of “Crossings.” Don’t look for strict demarcations between the two divisions; the poems included in each section move easily back and forth. The poet establishes a strong sense of place throughout the collection. From the arid precincts of Cape Verde to an army base at Fort Benning to remembrances of New York and arctic winds from the Canadian Rockies, “place” is the major shaping factor in Schmitz’s poetry.
The journey begins with the poem Border Crossings. Having arrived at Cape Verde, Schmitz encounters her first border in a strange land,
Villages disappear. Villages may be a luxury. Soldiers don’t speak
English at four in the morning. Our passports are mango meat.
Many of us know that “out-of-place” feeling of being new and, tired enough a grave seems reasonable currency. Then, a boy she doesn’t know but to whom she assigns a name, Jeffrey reaches out and touches me.
Dakar is about a true life-essential,
Borders do not matter.
Stars do not matter. Rain
matters. Nose first, screaming and
undeterred, it pelts the earth. It roots
and wends westward. It hurts
good, this wet and violent birth.
I grew up living and working on small farms in central Illinois. I recall conversations between farmers dependent on rain, their subsistence tied to what they could not control. Multiply this exponentially on Cape Verde. As I companioned with the poet across the landscape of her poems, I realized that I live surrounded by an abundance of goods, friends and opportunities. Deprivation is foreign to me.
The constant threats posed by war, by political unrest, by impure water, by food (maybe) for tonight’s table, remind me of living conditions experienced by a majority of people in the world.
This excerpt from part II of Drought makes me thankful for what I have,
Water has disappeared into ribbons
sultry with silt that tells stories of its
rhythm, mercy and torment. Who among
us remembers how it once moved? There was
a cove we used to swim in at sundown
seas now falling beneath, water licking
our clefts and swells, eating the smell of red
blossoms through heat. Now water no longer
rises or comes to kiss our sticky lips.
As Crossings opens, the poet’s focus shifts from Cape Verde to the challenges of life at home; challenges which may not be so different after all.
That Was Him As A Boy, explores memories of a life taken before its time,
That was him as a boy. That was us building
paths. That was me seeing his photograph.
Hello rope, hello wrist. He often ducked under
the overpass to rest or under the lowered arm
if the train had already passed. This is the river.
This is the rock at the burial.
These excerpts from Homecoming express the poet’s adjustment between cultures,
I came home
where roots are not grown
deep enough for
I came home
out of clay
in aid trucks.
I came home
The border guard said,
as if I came home
to be received.
The Night a Woman Died on My Street, reminds us that death is impactful and tragic whether on Cape Verde or in one’s hometown.
The Night a Woman Died on My Street
I wished we were made of something different,
something unleached, like soil
layered with guano and made fertile
into another season.
Or limestone caves wet and breathing
honeycombed-carved by salt water’s
slow precipitation, or salt water
deposited at the mouth of a mineral spring.
Or upwellings blown shoreward
gifting plankton to sunfish to
fishermen, or plankton
that drift lightly across oceans.
Or waves that angle
through space until, just below
the horizon line, they break
into new day.
Throughout Border Crossings the poet moves the reader back and forth between the “irregular” existence of life on Cape Verde, and the more “normative” expectations of life in America. I found myself rethinking many long-held assumptions about what matters in life. It is little wonder that this premier collection won the prestigious National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ Manuscript Competition for 2017. Amy Schmitz stands out, in this reviewer’s opinion, as among the rising stars in American letters today.