The Land of Stone and River
Moon City Press/ 2022 / 102 pp/ $14.95
Reviewed by Lynnell Edwards / February 2023
Claudia Putnam’s extraordinary debut poetry collection, The Land of Stone and River, is a sustained engagement with the deep histories and wide vistas of the exterior and interior landscapes that are her subjects. The winner of the Moon City Poetry Award, the book brilliantly explores the lands of stone and river in the specific Western territories where she has lived or travelled, as well as the interior vistas of the mind and body. Ambitious poems across three sections travel through natural, historical, and mythological histories, often asking hard questions about our place in the natural world and its indifference to us.
In the wintered, Western landscape of the first section, “Twenty Mountains,” Putnam convenes the creatures of the wild, all of them alone and hurting, surviving, at once suggesting both their otherness as well as her own near-mystical connections to them. In a nod to Wallace Stevens, “Ways of the Lion” presents thirteen movements that progress through the speaker’s “glimpse” of the animal and her ritual caution against the attendant danger. The spare tableaus thrum with sensation and suspense:
In twenty snow mountains
the only thing that lay still
was the lion.
. . .
If you feel watched,
you probably are.
. . .
Don’t make eye contact.
Don’t look away, either.
Throughout, animals are totemic even as the brutal facts of their short lives insist on a naturalistic view of the world. In five short movements, “Five Deer” brings together images of bone and blood and “antlers, two prongs each, gray / and smooth,” the physical evidence of the inevitable violent ends that animals in the wild come to from hunters, traffic, illness, with grief for the endings the speaker has known: a marriage, a suicide. The baby birds in “Fledges” “dropped / like peaches” from the nest to become the child lost to suicide, the “child for whom we circled and called.” In “Lynx,” the speaker sees “floating through the snow / light as the snowshoe hare” a lynx among the “Storm blue of the spruce” and addresses it:
They said you were extinct then,
not yet reintroduced.
I saw you; you looked straight through me.
Each poem in “Twenty Mountains” is a single, gorgeous moment in a quietly powerful narrative of grief, the subject of which becomes clear in the relentless prose poem “Unawake”—at once a confession and a benediction for a child who has died in infancy, the speaker wondering “How long does it take for the soul to leave did he need more time” and concludes:
peace on all beings peace on the infant
Section Two, “The Land of Stone and River,” reaches across time and space into complex stories that are part myth, part natural history, part human occupation. Each place—Mexico, Africa, Colorado—is its own land of stone and river with its own stories of blood and bone: our crimes against the land and each other, the bloodying of bodies and souls. She does not blink in the face of transgressions to and from sacred entradas, profane monuments to slaughter, criminal nations that arise from genocide, the plunder of natural riches. The ambitious, nine-part “As the Wind Comes Among Us” pulls back the geologic and human strata of the Great Sand Dunes National Park in a series of “entradas,” each an opening from one place to the next, beginning with the mountain range Sangre de Cristos, so named by the Conquistadores, that blaze as
late afternoon illuminates this valley
with the rose of sacrifice,
the sierra, the very air,
Later, the geologic history of the Rocky Mountain landscape insists as
groundwater seeping beneath its flanks, mixing— is this memory—minerals to iron oxide, turning in Time to hematite—desire, surely— rosy on the range we christen bloody in our Time, still the Time of the Conquistadores, and
it is dizzying Putnam manages nothing less than a history of planet Earth from its geologic beginning to the emergence of humankind in “After Africa.” The poem asks the biggest questions about our place here, the Earth’s indifference to us, and the deep ecology independent of our existence even as we in “this fifth age of the land / will end in rupture / without hearts to feed / the sun.” “Reading Octavio Paz” rewards a working knowledge of Paz and his work, and a more than cursory understanding of Mexican history in this dense and fragmented narrative of the speaker’s visit to Mexico City.
An apocalyptic portrait of Nevada, “here mined for weapons / there hollowed / for storage of spent / weapons” (“Driving U.S. 50”) closes the section as she warns ”the waters will flood in radioactive,” an artful transition into the electric landscape of the final section, “Nervestorm.” Here Putnam returns to the personal in shorter lyric poems, their subject the mind’s interior landscape, as fraught with damage and harrowing beauty as the literal lands of stone and river she has surveyed. “Migraine” crackles with elemental images of electricity, describing a night spent seeking cover from a wild electrical storm thrashing a “red range.” The broadly syllabic and alliterative poem rumbles with Anglo-Saxon thunder:
. . . We flew
to the car, clamped into crash restraints.
Such a storm never seen before
lightning lashing leaping, curling
unstretching, then whirling in stripes round itself
Other poems are charged with the clinical language of the brain and its pharmaceutical tonics: the cleverly named Brintellix: “‘Brintellix’— / brilliance + intelligence—trust big pharma / to come up with that.” (“The Battle of Brintellix”) Or “Seroquel, quiet it, quetiapine / the line between / the will to do nothing / and the will not to do.” (“Lethe”) The transcendent and affirming final poem, “Remanence,” declaims:
. . . we are electromagnetic
beings, animated just as Shelley
knew, drawing lightning to us
like a sister.
And so we are breathless at the end of this collection with that pulse, electric in our astonishment, even as Putnam has pressed throughout this brilliant collection for us to “Find the tingle, the race of life / still there.”
Lynnell Edwards is associate programs director for the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing where she lectures and mentors in poetry and is the book reviews editor for Good River Review. Her most recent collection is This Great Green Valley (Broadstone Books); her forthcoming sixth collection, The Bearable Slant of Light, will be released by Red Hen Press in late 2023.