“at least now they are /
back in the grass”
A Review of
Paperback: Silverfish Review Press, 2019
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Reviewed by Sarah Lyons-Lin
To enter into Gigi Marks’s Territory is to stand in the threshold of familiar, earthy language and to take your shoes off at the door. On a first read, many of the poems are warm and subtle, characterized by their occasionally sparse language and slow, steady thawing—each poem, and the collection as a whole, leans into a future of movement and growth. Consider the narrator’s voice in “To Dig”:
You had made the empty space
and its final dimensions, the place
for the white roots bright with the hopes
of a new home, bright with the hopes
of fine new roots sent out in all directions.
There is action implied here—the carving and filling of space, the reaching of roots—but not present action. These lines speak only of what has happened, and the hope of what could.
Territory asks you to sit with it in the grass and observe. Close inspection of these poems, much like the digging spoken of above, yields both a fullness and often a hidden, unsettling rot. My favorite poem from the collection, “On the Surface of My Skin,” describes a bee sting:
My skin was a blanket, a red rose,
the expanding sky, and the richness
of disfigurement awoke conflicting
To be close to the earth and to live richly in it is to allow yourself the possibility of being harmed by it. This theme is masterfully woven throughout the book as Marks’s poems repeatedly grapple with underlying anger, or perhaps fear: two boys wander too far from home, a swimmer struggles to keep above the water, and even a cavity in a tree is described as a “wound” waiting for rot to set in. Marks is particularly skilled at echoing the dynamics between man and nature in her poems that focus on familial relationships. Quite a few pieces meditate on motherhood, and there is both challenge and beauty in nurturing a body both so like one’s own and yet so vulnerable. The closeness of such relationships is joyful, complex—like overlapping tree branches, Marks writes, “shade richer underneath two than one of them” (“Some Days”)—and yet it is an intimacy that exposes. Offspring will one day fly the nest, or they will board buses with “tires high / and thick, the glass dark with reflection” (“Blessing the Bus”).
I could have done with more grit and violence, whether through focus on the body’s decay in death or on the blood of mothering. This is not to say that Territory skirts around grim topics; “Moth Wing” begins with the lines “The moth begins its newest flight / without its body.” But despite the frank description, the poem is graceful in an odd way. Marks writes with a fresh, vibrant voice, and her poems are small creations that have been uprooted from the ground: honest, dirty, but whole. Occasionally, I found myself missing the ugly and the grotesque, the roadkill of language where I could see the rawness of exposed bone. This, however, is merely a personal preference, and doesn’t seem to be the tone that Territory aims to strike. Marks’s collection is bodily, but the best way I can think to describe it is that it also holds a lot of silence within its pages. Her writing has the overall feel of something content and settled, able to find newness in the familiar and share it with the reader.
Ultimately, Territory challenges one’s state of being, drawing the reader into spaces that seem known and asking for a second look. In “Handwork,” Marks tells of two cedar waxwings that the narrator carries out of the road.
My daughter who is with me
says, oh no, did they get hit by
a car, why are you moving them,
oh they are so beautiful, the two
of them, at least now they are
back in the grass.
Even what is messy or mundane can be a source of beauty. Take your shoes off, dear reader, and step into the grass.
Sarah Lyons-Lin grew up in Indiana and recently finished her Master’s program at Illinois State University. Her work has previously appeared in Art House America, and her chapbook lectio divina for reborn things was published in winter 2018.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com