TRIPPING WITH THE TOP DOWN
By Ellaraine Lockie
Published by Foothills Publishing
Handbound 44 pages
To order: http://www.foothillspublishing.com/2017/lockie.html
Reviewed by Sarah W. Bartlett
Having reviewed Ellaraine Lockie’s previous chapbook, WHERE THE MEADOWLARK SINGS, I anticipated a devotional to place. Nor was I disappointed. While the former is a song cycle to the wild landscapes of her beloved Montana, TRIPPING WITH THE TOP DOWN is more constrained by the impositions of the human-made and human-succumbed-to artifice, excesses, and extremes.
In signature style, Ellaraine Lockie leads with the senses, from the sensual to the edgy. Sometimes we are invited into her own felt world. At others we are carried to the very edge and left to fend for ourselves. Wit, wordplay, layered nuance, literary allusion, cultural context, linguistic gymnastics – these are but some of the many means by which we find ourselves compelled to join in the journey. Not least being the marvelous (and mischievous) title pun’s invitation to this road trip through shady city corners and wide open prairie in a dazzling array of experience that sometimes pushes the surreal.
Many moods and meanings manifest between the pages of TRIPPING, worlds bridged through a personal and often intimate lens. Several poems deal with a pubic interface of place. Like ‘Anywhere Hotel’ with its tongue-in-cheek references and double entendres. Let this early-in-the-poem line draw you in, as it did me: We depend on hotel personnel/to master this immaculate deception. In another vein entirely, ‘Reading at the Little Joy’ takes us to another place, both public and interior: in one snap of gum I’m rabbit-aware brings us into the immediacy of the moment, the reader holding the poet’s breath as one, waiting along with her in the endless minutes that hang at the mercy of unbalance and mercifully right themselves with a few minutes to spare. Suspense is a key part of many of these earthy and gritty moments.
Then there are the wonderful portrait-poems. ‘Just Another Day in LA’ illustrates the poet’s ability to make the ordinary extraordinary, holding up both mirror and light to what we miss or mistake in our daily rounds. Compassion conveyed in simple gestures: she asks him how it happened/… she gives him one of her tamales … ; and few words, his ‘what’s the matter, nobody ever call you/baby girl before’ telling, as the poet shows, that someone has.
Two other poems celebrate the diversity of Los Angeles city dwellers through subtle twists that challenge our own assumptions. In ‘Motherhood in Hollywood,’ Lockie draws us right into the scene without judgment. Exquisite detail brings the entire moment into living color clarity, capturing the essence of the ‘mother’ through the smallest of observations, leaving us breathless as the writer right up to and including the surprise ending. Likewise, ‘Mother May I in Santa Cruz,’ with its detailed description - the essence of woman…pink chiffon dress…pink Lycra legs, red ruffled ankles…cinnamon sweet smile…dollar sized rouge cheek…pink pearls - builds to the surprise of telling details missed. How we see what we want or expect to, and how little that may correspond to another’s reality. After all, no permission required!
In a different vein, Lockie packs the essence of the sharp edges of hunger and homelessness into four short stanzas called ‘Edge of Night.’ Here it’s winter that eats with butcher knife teeth, not the man who remains at the edge of night, of the knife, of life. His sparrow hands on head hung low and produce bag for a hat such powerful metaphors with which to shape this compelling yet skeletal sketch.
If Lockie has not already proven herself masterful at the unexpected moment, ‘Mendocino Morning’ should settle the matter. Through a dream-like haze of morning fog breaks a thoroughly unexpected and unique moment as a man cannonballs/ from the helm [of his truck] with me as his mark. What follow next is a most extraordinary description - My Heathcliff wears a metallic pink sweater/gold hoop in one ear, cobweb hair/in a crew cut and a military mustache – and event. To do it justice, you need to read the poem in its entirety.
Within this city so clearly not-home, many of the poems touch the poet with greater immediacy. In ‘Home of the Brave’:
wondering if I/ raised them to be careless or courageous…
So I've stopped winding the gang wars/around my rosary when I visit
The ever-present parental preoccupation with a child’s safety and well-being stands in stark juxtaposition to the ill-being of the surrounding, intermingling real and virtual time into different stories of what is – so poignant in this time of alternative realities within one country, the USA, home of the brave. And though it comes later in the collection, echoes the theme of the fierce maternal protectiveness of the young portrayed in ‘Scene of the Crime.’
While progressing with Lockie’s signature play on words, ‘Scene’ is a fierce attack on violation at so many levels. The sense of loss, betrayal and helplessness seeing her grandchildren’s photos lying on the trashcan, -Their innocence autonomous in this back alley/sex shop bordered bathroom… would be a sickening jolt to any mother, whose desperate need to protect gives rise to rage against such an injustice. Attacker and victim are described with the same raw animal ferocity:
My leather wallet lies forsaken on the floor
A splayed animal flattened
by the hit and run of a thief
Who lingered long enough to strip the flesh
and discard anything not consumable
I love the bordering-on-baudy One Night Stand, a spritely tongue-in-cheek respite from Los Angeles insanity… to lie in literary lust/…spark my wildfire spirit/in one sleepless night… But that is not all! This one-night infusion of the writer’s soul ‘will shadow my trails/on the next sunlit day.’ Just like poetry itself, this need for respite a necessary antidote to the too-much of life, the ‘train schedules/and the gray hair of frenzy’ referenced in Offerings to the Green Gods.
In Bed with Edgar Allan at the Sylvia Beach Hotel might be the single most intense and literary exploration of the challenges of menopause ever written. So many images, so many references involving blood, life, death; and the paradox of loss/mourning and acceptance/longing. Again the language , both intense and original - the ending/could be so exquisitely executed …the circular vise of night… a harbinger for barren - and the understanding that the end of fertility is not death but something else; that the transition/transformation allows a different kind of possibility. I especially love the final two lines: Cramps, craziness, leaks and stench/being what the raven meant when it said ‘Nevermore.’ Thank you for this!
Further in the collection ‘Breaking the Rules ‘ echoes the theme in a more lighthearted vein. and offers a fun counter-point to ‘Just Another Day in LA’ where the encounter is unwelcome. I love that Lockie offers us these two sides of what are, for most women (whether admitted or not!) fairly common experiences. It is so utterly relatable and yet innocent at the same time. Right along with the strongly entrenched maternal instinct:
Ignoring the lifetime lecture series I taught/my daughters on not talking to strangers
… Then sanction myself for assessing the man/the way any Montana-bred woman would
… I hit the road with new-found arousal
having nothing to do with caffeine
It probably won’t come up in conversation
with the daughters
In many ways ‘Offerings to the Green Gods’ sits at the fulcrum of the collection:
Then the exhale rush of twenty-some passengers
who sweep across the platform like prairie wind
to settle on a small plot of brown ground…
A stealth platoon toting succulents, spades
plastic jugs of water and babies on backs…
Mr. Stamen already on hands and knees
issues orders like prayers…
Thirty minutes later the crusaders pack-up
in an undercover of quiet…
to the train for the next Metro stop
Where another brown patch waits to be reborn.
Here we live the absolute juxtaposition of the natural world upon the human-made, a welcome reversal of the conqueror: rather than paving a field to make a parking lot, a plot of ground is tilled to bring living growth and beauty to the pavement. A hopeful return.
Throughout the collection, Lockie plays with themes of home and not-home, loss and vigilance, violation and confrontation of expectations. ‘Homesick at the Lighthouse’ presents a truly poignant moment of need and desire, such a human experience and need. At the same time, we cannot compel responsiveness on demand. Yet humans can equally find solace from our own projected needs. Pair this with ‘Running on Empty,’ its utter universality in its simple desire to break a habit, how even well-planned alternatives leave the emptiness I try to feed.
The back-to-back pairing of ‘Coming Home in a Haibun’ and ‘First Time to Montana’ shift gears to a serenity absent in the city pieces. Clearly, this is where Lockie’s heart and soul find nourishment, where she is home. Both poems invite the reader unapologetically into her beloved Montana landscape with both the experienced heart of a lover and the understanding vision of a newcomer. All are welcome; none can refuse.
Las Vegas Observatory
Entertainment I chew up and spit out/in my own addictive den - one of the things about EL’s writing I love is the layered nature of interpretation; here for instance one can relate to the addict’s inability to say ‘no’, such that even though she is a writer and seems to eschew the entertainment scene, she is equally addicted to writing – and possible cannot resist at least at kind of voyeuristic relationship to the very things that turn her off … in a kind of self-effacing moment she is comparing both as a kind of self-imprisonment
Out of the East
women – terriers – motorcycle – wonderful parallel:
Terriers positioned like bird dogs
whose compass noses point west
Held by women who have already
discovered their direction
Not shy about the most intimate sharing, Lockie includes a series of quite personal poems – as distinct from those more place- or issue-driven poems that comprise the majority of the collection. A panicked moment in flight (9/11 Leftovers), love song to Taos (Apasionado), a smoldering spa experience (Ojo Caliente Ablution) and God’s Country, recalling the earlier One Night Stand – except that the earlier poem refreshed the poet; this one, the spirit body.
The last two poems also seem to share dialogue. In ‘Birds of a Feather’ we feel the deep-rooted tether that holds Lockie fast to her land through generations, spirit connection and return writ large:
Where I am blindly led year after year
to be lit by the sun god’s torch
To burn Taos fuel
To feel the whisper
of angel wings on my back
How timeless this experience; and how beautifully Lockie reflects on time itself in ‘Time … and Time Again:’
Time sheds like fairy dust . . .
I remove my wristwatch/Cover the kitchen wall clock . . .
This day will not be stolen by cold facts . . .
The swoon of exhaustion and the sweet taste/of satisfaction that a perfected craft sparks
At midnight I make amends with Time/over dinner of oatmeal and ice cream
Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero: "Seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in the future."—Horace
I LOVE that the collection ends with this quote from Horace, which so exquisitely sums up the entire collection. For these are poems about being present to small details, events, the moments that comprise a life, an experience; and added up, a time, a place, a culture. It is all here – from the smoggy city to the wild prairie, from the tawdry to the sultry, from the mundane to the spiritual, the innocent to the unbalanced. Within the paradoxes (paradise?!!) of life, the tension of opposites (thank you, Marion Woodman), emerges a web of connection – the good, the bad and the ugly. Without labels. It just IS.
Thanks to her observing eye and facility with language, Ellaraine Lockie brings us this stunning new collection. Within its pages lie something for everyone. Not because she casts a wide net in an attempt to speak to everyone; quite the contrary. Because she speaks from her own heart, her own lived experience of the themes and questions of human life. We are brought to consciousness through her powers of observation; and to gratitude for her generosity in sharing them.
Sarah W. Bartlett's chapbook of poems, SLOW BLOOMING GRATITUDES, was a finalist in the New Women's Voices Series from Finishing Line Press. In addition to writing reviews, she is published in anthologies, poetry journals and a first chapbook. She also runs a weekly writing group for inmates inside Vermont's sole women's prison.