MEMORIZING SHADOWS, INSPIRATION FROM THE ARIZONA TRAIL AND STONE WISHES ON THE COLORADO PLATEAU
Because we couldn’t go hiking together in red rock country this spring, a friend offered two chapbooks of poetry written by a woman who loves canyons and deserts as much as we do. My friend is correct. Heidi Elizabeth Blankenship’s poems exactly capture the stark edges and soft curves, the stunning ambiance of that harsh yet fragile land. Memorizing Shadows introduces poems Blankenship drafted while hiking the 800-mile Arizona Trail north from Mexico to Utah. Stone Wishes takes the reader onto the Colorado Plateau, celebrating the stone, the sun, the wind, and the water that can be discovered there.
As important to her writing is the artistry that accompanies Blankenship’s words. She illustrates Memorizing Shadows: Inspiration from the Arizona Trail with her own paper cuts, what the German’s call scherenschnitte and the Chinese call Jianzhi, two-toned reflections of scenery in abstract lines and shapes and forms.
For Stone Wishes, Blankenship collaborated with photographer Michael Salamacha. Together, his images and her words illustrate canyon and desert themes that are omnipresent when hiking on the plateau. I was charmed, too, by Blankenship’s cautionary comments. “Keep secrets.” Places are unnamed in Stone Wishes, purposefully so. “Keep secrets.”
I’m sure I have hiked and boated many of the routes that Blankenship followed, but I promise I will keep her secrets in this review. One place, for example, I know I have happily canoed, “Where we go as fast/as the river/takes us/unwinding” until we are “lost/in the spell/of rivertime” Another spot is ravaged by fire. There, we hear not “howling coyotes,” but “trees/with the wind/rushing past/their charred,/barren/trunks,/ thousands of skeleton/sticks/screaming.” I think, too, of how often I have climbed to ancient ruins. “Secrets in these canyons/ dwell under slickrock ceilings:/the rounded stone doors/of granaries/crumbling walls/of abandoned houses/handmade/with bricks/ and canyon mud mortar/galleries of rock art/fragments of painted pots.” Blankenship’s words float down a page, they urgently shout, they pile images together in a heap.
What I like most about her writing is her ability to capture the special red rock ambiance I mentioned earlier. Some visitors are overawed by the voodoo shapes, the vast distances, the fear of the unknown. But those of us who hike there regularly know the world Blankenship sees, a terrain to be respected to be sure, but also a landscape to be embraced with great affection. Her words bring to mind many happy places, a few scary experiences, and a host of precious memories. Yes, I’d rather be in canyonlands today, but reading Blankenship’s poetry in Memorizing Shadows and Stone Wishes is the next best thing to hiking there. – Ann Ronald
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“I have come to believe that even spoons have spirits,”
– Heidi Blankenship
The unique landscape of the Desert Southwest invariably sparks a correspondingly unique response in those sensitive to its power. And yet this response, in many, is inchoate and bewilderingly ineffable. For sensitive souls, these sprawling expanses of surrealism and gemlike architectural grandeur, take one’s breath away, and the tentative, embryonic words that feebly arise in the mind to encompass it, quickly follow the breath’s lead. It takes a real poet to capture and crystallize the stirrings of tentative thought that arise in response to this landscape. And Heidi Blankenship has done this to perfection.
The Desert Southwest is a landscape much more challenging for the poet, even, than for the visual artist. Some say the landscape speaks for itself, and all one has to do is present it’s visual aspect in some stunning or startling way, and the recipients’ need to find a place for it in her heart, or situate it satisfactorily in her soul, will come into being on its own. But how articulate is the typical landscape lover’s response to the product of the visual artist? Look at the behavior of the typical tourist. Certainly, most are moved by the landscape’s sparkling uniqueness: The typical response? Its incessant capture and subsequent transmission to distant friends; the work of the visual artist then becomes a standard of comparison; an aesthetic benchmark for this activity of response, these reflexive spasms of responsibility to share, usually mindlessly, usually in a self-aggrandizing manner.
The poet however, does not have to contend with this vacuous dynamic; a dynamic that has arisen to smother the Desert Southwest landscape visual artist in a liquid crystal slime of digital meaninglessness. If anyone bothers to articulate their aesthetic emotions with words, it is usually in the soulless inanity of a tweet. As our language becomes increasingly co-opted by the perceived necessities of commerce, it becomes increasingly difficult to encompass a landscape’s beauty within the screw-plates of its scripted usage. The poet must say things with language that must somehow rise above this iron-clad quagmire. Not an easy task.
What Heidi, or any other poet worthy of the name does, that the visual artist cannot do, is find the voice of the landscape – or voices – as they are legion. This requires relinquishing the typical male response to the landscape of cartoonish courage, strong-man spasms of heroic recreational conquest; knee-jerk perpetual assertions of imagined patriarchal authority. Thus, any real poetry of the desert, in order to transcend such patriarchal clownishness, must arise from a deeply feminist perspective. And this Heidi’s poetry does.
Authentic listening, genuine sensitivity to the voices of the landscape, does not come easy. One has to steep oneself for a very long time in it. One has to turn off all one’s mindless dualistic cultural conditioning, calm the scripted voices; let them fade into insignificance, then listen, listen, listen. Afterward of course, there is the work of translation into crystal clear expression, using evocative words pregnant with association. A collection such as this, this unbelievable treasure trove of meaning and connection with the landscape, has more connective worth for the reader than any number of dozens of prosaic descriptive celebrations vainly attempting to convey the same thing.
In times of war, national tragedy or deadly epidemics, the popularity of poetry always rises. We seem, in especially dark times, to need take a detour into the real, into the authentic, into poetry and thus informed, into the lyrical world of the real. Poetry becomes essential. Because Authentic poetry, arising directly from the land, still maintains a certain degree of independence, a mode of expression blissfully free of that disgusting aftertaste of incompleteness the visitor always takes away from the invariably industrialist tourism experience of the landscapes of the Desert Southwest provided by capitalist society, an ugly spiritual aftertaste that permeates even the soul of their souvenirs, even if those souvenirs happen to be spoons.