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January 23, 2012

ACORNS AND ABALONE

by John

Acorns and Abalone. By Sylvia Ross. (2011. Bentley Avenue Books, P.O. Box 44040, Lemon Cove, CA 93244) 99 pp. $10.

By reading her poetry and prose, one doesn’t need Sylvia Ross’ family tree to tell she’s native, that she’s Chukchansi, a sub-tribe of the Yokuts that solely occupied the ground around Yosemite, California. And one doesn’t need to study society today to see that the majority is missing some basic understandings about the earth that has sustained us all. Her poetry offers natural windows to her life, without squeamishness or contemporary judgment, where she can hold back witness/ that a broken shell is no more/ beautiful than a beach sand feather. (“THE SEAGULLS’ BANQUET”) At once the reader realizes how we tend to sort our natural surroundings into a hierarchy, and only then to endure its consternation, whether to favor predator or prey. The poet diffuses this baseless order of importance, suggesting she might be both—not unlike comparing children, she would love who they were—by offering the beauty and satisfaction of a much bigger picture in this poem.

A former illustrator for Walt Disney and author of several children’s books, Ross sees herself and her sister as ‘bear women’ with ‘great bear women arms’:

                                We have the power
                                To crash through brush, to smash
                                The clouds and pluck down stars
                                And make a meal.
                                Sister, tonight your voice
                                Brings our mother back to us.
                                Her great bear woman presence
                                Fills all the space
                                Of this room.

                                (“SISTERS”)

So often disconnected from family, few today would see themselves and be so wholly remembered in the form of an animal, but such identities can pack long-lasting power that can trigger memory and presence. Instead we tend to see ourselves in the form of actors or athletes—but for the most part, nothing very permanent.

I also enjoyed the vernacular, the ‘pigeon-English’, because of its plain and simple way of getting things said, a minimalism of sorts appearing in some of the prose and poems that rings truly. There are varied pieces with varied styles, but all with the theme of family and a native culture that endures. This book is dedicated to the resilience of the early women of the West—and to the present women of her family who continue to thrive in its rugged landscape.

                                She says the best knitters of any were her own ancestors
                                Back in Ireland. Her granddaughter Denine works down at the
                                Taco Bell since summer. I ask her if Denine knows how
                                To knit them fine fishermen sweaters. She says kids today
                                Just don’t want to learn nothing what takes time.

                                (“CONVERSATION”)

A delightful read with depth and force, this collection of work refreshes the senses
to help us suppose:

                                VERTEBRAL DOGGEREL

                                Would it be so difficult to cope
                                with being an ant?
                                It might be nice to be
                                an ant or roach or scorpion,
                                often social, ever industrious.
                                One might hope
                                thoughts more relevant
                                would arise from neurons safely
                                inside an exoskeleton,
                                that ideas, grand and illustrious,
                                would find firing there superior—
                                unimpeded by a bony interior.

-JCD

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