JoAnne McFarland's latest book of poetry, Fossil Fuel, is a book that searches the past to understand the present. It is a book which is daring and demanding, and in the end very rewarding.
Prodded to think about what we are reading as we journey through these poems; this is not poetry-lite. The poetry here is not of the 'hearts and flowers' type. This is poetry, which digs deep into the vast reservoir of the mind, to mine out memories – both beautiful and painful.
Like 'The Women of Irene' depicted in the book, we are uncovering history and bringing it into the present so we can understand it and apply it to our own lives. In that way, reading this book is like our own personal archaeological dig – as we find out more about ourselves and ponder our future actions.
Divided into two sections - 'Resources' and 'The Harvest' - Fossil Fuel is full of precise poetry. JoAnne McFarland does not waste words, she does not toss them onto the page without first making sure they need to be there. These are tight poems, lean and pristine. There is clarity of meaning if the reader takes the time to consider the subtext behind the lines.
The first poem in the book, 'Burial Grounds,' is a three-part poem with the sub-headings of Stone, Ash, and Glass. In the section titled 'Ash', there is this passage describing the unearthing of a skull during a dig, and it is unsettling and poignant at the same time.
She unearths a skull, holds it high.
The two-voice form of many of the poems is intriguing, sometimes challenging upon a first reading but always thought-provoking. These dual voices play like sophisticated soloists in a jazz orchestra who challenge and engage each other to make a complete piece.
Within her, breath expands,
and the cavities of the eyes fill.
This is evident in the poem 'Solar Eclipse,' a piece that in itself flows like a lovely piece of music. These lines from the poem exhibit the two-voice rhythm of the piece:
'Watercolor' shows the author's perceptive talents in finding the energy and the beauty of the 'ordinary' in life. Again, notice the two-voice approach employed here, giving the poem a vibrancy that makes the words jump off the page:
wail for your child to come home wail for your child
or talk about the light luminous girl
loving the light losing the world
The oak on Waverly is fighting for its leaves,
The second section of the book highlights the work in 1937 of forty-five African American women who helped dig up Irene Mound, a Native American mound close to the banks of Georgia's Savannah River. This mound was the burial ground of the Creek tribes.
silver light skims the tops of maples
the left sides of our faces robbed of color
fighting for its little bit of soil.
The poems in this section consider the lives of those buried there, and the lives of those who uncovered the remains and possessions. The natural extrapolation upon reading these poems is to consider our own existence and our own futures.
Three jewels in this section of the book are 'Lot's Wife,' 'Tea', and 'Gateway'. In 'Tea', the author is at the height of her craft. This poem is of two voices which synchronize perfectly in tone and substance. This poem flows like the Savannah River itself moving with grace. This poem speaks of time past, present desires, and future reward.
brewed, it can be blood red
Poetry of insight and depth always demands repeated reading; Fossil Fuel, being poetry of this type, demands the same. Its story lies buried beneath the written lines where unspoken words lie. Each reading of the book is akin to scraping away a level of soil hunting for artifacts that speak of past generations.
Yesterday, news of famine coming.
More wounded, more dead.
In between, ads for luxury goods.
a thousand year old tea tree
What is uncovered in repeated readings of Fossil Fuel is knowledge of humankind's past, understanding of humankind's present... and foreshadowing of humankind's future.