Saturday, June 22, 2019

revisiting the archaeologist's daughter

This weekend's revisit of older work included a read through of what was technically my first chapbook The Archaeologist's Daughter (2005).  Time-wise, it wound up following two other self-issued chaps in 2004 due to a lengthy publication schedule, but it was the first written and the first accepted by an outside press.  Moon Journal Press had been the first publisher to take my work for their journal a couple year's previously--so when I had put together my first chapbook, of course I wanted to send it there in 2002. It was the first thing I could talk about as a book--that I was publishing a book!--so it was tremendously exciting.

Most of the poems inside did not make it any further into a full-length.  This was not always necessarily due to quality--though there are some doozies in there I wish I could pluck out.  But on the whole, re-reading now, some of the pieces are decent poems in the style I was writing in then (lyric, lined poetry, with definite Sharon Olds/Louise Gluck style leanings--the authors I was devouring then.)  The earliest poems stem from about 1999, when things were just beginning to get good--written the spring I was finishing up my MA and about to be launched into the world.  Some were written when I was back in Chicago that first year and writing poems at the library's circulation desk, spurred into productivity by my first publication efforts online.

They begin with the title poem, which is all about interpreting the past via artifacts--of which the rest of the poems serve, touching on more personal history and cultural history--fairy tales, history, literature, mythology.  There are poems about Daphne, mermaids, rapunzel, gold rush brides, Degas dancers. I always say, my first efforts were very much allusion-heavy since I hadn't yet found sufficient material in my own life to write about it heavily--I was after all, only in in my mid 20's.  What did I know of anything?  It ends with a poem about loss and Pompeii, about how it rounds its edges over time, so maybe I was wiser than I give myself credit for in hindsight.  That first poem and the end poem form a set of bookends for everything in between, about artifacts and memories, but also about domesticities, and the way women become lost to history. One of the oldest pieces in there has to be "Geneology", a poem about how that subject is always so male-focused, sur-named focused but that we never know as much about the women who gave up their family names, but are just as much a part of our genetic makeup.

There was a period of time, about a decade ago, when I looked at this collection and scoffed at how rudimentary my writing skills were, but there is definite goodness in places.  I had an ear for rhythm, for example, that was in no way as intentional as it is now, but still developing.  A couple of the poems ("Swimming the Witch" is  definitely one, maybe "Columbus" and "On the Way to California") are actually pretty strong, if not slightly overwrought.

"The girls in Salem are full of venom,
their flesh pressing the seams of dresses
sewn by mothers just last year. 
Their desires are milky as egg whites
in water, the inside rims of pots
boiling black on the stove--
fennel, saffron, snake root.

They blame you fro the barren field, 
still birth, blood moon, rabid dog.
Your legacy is the murmur of circles,
a bolt of lace unraveling, a hundred
crows alighting on branches."

-"Swimming the Witch"

I did have a maddening tendency to use run-ons gratuitously and pile on the similes. But not too shabby in general, but clunkier than I'd like. If I look, there are a lot of threads that would come up in later work--domesticity for one, the work of it and how women move in the world vs. men. There was a later poem in the fever almanac ("the language of objects") that echoed the sentiment of the title poem--the inability of objects to accurately tell the stories that surround them.  I name check other poets--Dickinson, Millay. There is a mermaid poem in there, of course, and I'm pretty sure it echoes and earlier poem about Calypso in my files--both about being the "other woman" in relationships. There are five poems that did make it into the fever almanac, all of them more personal, less allusion-based work.  Most appear in the first section of the longer book, and most slightly revised later--"Nebraska," "Drought, " "Divination," "Volition" and "Degrees."   (There are probably about 4 different published versions of that first one out there--though final one in the fever almanac one is the best.)  At least one  of the poems ("Drought") was a portion of the pieces that won me my first third place nod from the Poetry Center Juried contest in 2002 before winning a couple years later with newer work.

As for the physicality of the book, there was an initial printing error by the printer, so there is a version where the title page is printed on the inside of the cover, which is a delicious pale pink parchment.  I have leftovers of those and another 50 of the correct version under my desk at the library, where they were shipped to and were never lugged home.  The design was done by someone who regularly designed for Moon Journal (Missy Isely-Poltrock) and captured the book, perfectly with its fragmented shells, teacup, and feathers.  There was also another photo on the title page of a plastic mermaid (an image I would later use in many poems.)

When the book was released in 2005, I was already neck deep in other poem pursuits.  Mired in MFA studies, and in a definite skewing of my work toward more innovation. Also the struggle to get that first full-length book into shape and find a publisher,  so it was probably more of a blip on my literary landscape than I probably intended it to be.   I remember a reading at the Prairie Moon bookstore in the suburbs with other MJ writers in the fall of 2005 with my parents in attendance.  A good review in Rhino magazine by Mary Biddinger. Some giveaways and online swaps. But mostly I had moved onto other things and never felt like I gave this chap its proper due in terms of readings and marketing.  

"Bowen's ability to create a whole from a virtual mosaic of concrete details reminds us that we are in the hands of a poet who is also a visual artist, not to mention a researcher who is able to render times past with authenticity and precision."--Rhino

If it catches your fancy, I still  do have some copies available for free (just shoot me a message at the dgp e-mail address or on social media).  I was also stoked to see that the enitre Moon Journal series is available at Smith College in their archives.  So this chap may have a life that continues on even now that the press has shuttered and it lives mostly in a box under my desk...

No comments: