leaving tulsa

Leaving Tulsa displays a new and poignant voice in American poetry. This debut collection by Jennifer Elise Foerster is published by the University of Arizona Press as part of their Sun Tracks: American Indian Literary Series. Praised by luminaries such as Joy Harjo, Foerster’s work certainly echoes a Native American epistemology, but her journey depicted in these lines transcends an individual story connected to (and painfully dis-connected from) a tribal context. Beyond the presentation of an individual member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, the lines in this collection agitate for the most essential, nagging, universal human desire – freedom.

I am struck by the poet’s skillful, lyrical use of language which at once images a visceral landscape even as it renders it innocuous. The speaking voice of the collection exhibits a triumph of language as she wrestles with the leaving, (the expulsion?), the venturing west from Tulsa (a landmark to suggest home, or what is known). Landscape is not celebrated but negotiated. The colors of the journey west are pronounced, not for their ability to console or even inform, but for their obstinate reminders as parameters defining the speaker’s uncertain quest. There is much aesthetic negation in her presentation. An anti-pastoral feeling permeates, stark as much as colorful. Consider some of her phrases:

This is not God’s/ country. Our story: scrolled on leaves,/buried under cedars” (58),
“on this windswept/ledge of land – no footprints” (69), “a sea” she “has no name for”
“at land’s end,/ no witnesses./Not even the trees/sketched on the horizon”(63),
“I no longer know the difference/between water and air/or which I should breath” (61),
“Imaginary friends” depicted as “snow/dispersing into wind,/their little heads rolling/ across the yellow plains” (31), “gutted armadillos” (48), “billowing from splintered mud” (70).

At times the images seem to be accelerating: horses stampeding (53), a “fugue of black/ horses drowning in the surf (56), “Black horses broken loose/over a trampled dawn” (55).

At times the images are distant or diminished: “dissipating campfires” (54), “icy stars”(60), “splintered stars”(62) “echoes from the planes … plucked stars”(69), “I step and shatter the field” (40), “a framing of absence” (46).

At times the language is wonderfully blue: “[I] can only speak about blue things –/the woman in the blue shirt, the blue/October sky, blue silk on the woman’s/laundry line/flapping against a blue breath,/ the bluishness of a body/when it is left behind, the blue/memory of a desert” (51).

Magdalena is a recurring allusion, the title of four of the poems, as well as a referent in other poems. The allusion is mythical for what we know of her, but more poignantly, for what we think we might know of her. This mystery fits neatly with the wounded traveler in this collection.

The language throughout is aggressive; it is beautiful. Like one standing at the precipice overlooking a violent waterfall, Foerster’s phrasing keeps the reader at a respectful distance. We are witness to the poet’s personal epic, and though we are drawn into her journey by the alluring beauty of her phrasing, we are never quite comfortable. Readers of this volume find consolation in the poet’s array of language, for what is revealed – content and contexts – is limited, suggested more than clarified. But the striking use of language intrigues me to consider what may be concealed, though I certainly don’t need to know more to embrace this journey, this dance of survival. One exception to everything I have said so far may be found in the poet’s use of a blanket or quilt imagery. This image is one of the few comforting images in the collection.

In Poetry as Survival, Gregory Orr claims the personal lyrical poem functions to “translate our crisis into language” and thereby “arrays the ordering powers our shaping imagination has brought to bear on these disorderings” (4). Indeed, Foerster’s aptitude with language seems to have an ordering power, but Leaving Tulsa is more than personal lyric. The voice of the one who has “to live/ with these scars now” (46) is mingled within the collective voice, a corporate, as well as individual memory. Orr borrows Sara Hutchinson’s term “Overculture” to explain the tension evident within the collective and the personal voice: “the two worlds the self must negotiate are the world of personal memories and emotions and the surrounding social/political/economic world (i.e., the Overculture)” (213). Foerster’s speaker embodies the pain (note frequent reference to scars and ashes) bound up within the journey, a recoiling, an effort to negotiate the personal and the collective within the greater Overculture.

Reviewed by Ken Hada
Ada, Oklahoma

Jennifer Elise Foerster. Leaving Tulsa. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8165-2236-1