Poetry by James Engelhardt; Boreal Books, May 2018; $17.95   

Poetry by James Engelhardt; Boreal Books, May 2018; $17.95   

South of here, the world flutters in pastel

so lovely against the dull storm skies

— “River’s Head”


James Engelhardt’s debut collection is strongly thematic, mainly treating five years he and his family spent in Fairbanks, Alaska. The volume should be of special interest to eco-poets and poets of place, and to those interested in the Alaska literary scheme. Most of this work is deeply interior, Alaska itself nearly defined by the interior, and by observation and introspection.

The title poem is its prologue, a skillful open door that immediately demonstrates a poet who understands what poetic form can accomplish:


We pause on the road, a cow moose and me,

and in a moment, she vanishes, like a magic trick.

I drive on home, to cut willows


In this first stanza, the reader is offered the best the poet has to give, especially in tight and well-varied meter, taut word choice, and nearly perfect syntax. Note then that “cutting willows” foreshadows the loss and grief that punctuate so many of the poems to follow. As a first-person poem, “Bone Willows” is as formally accomplished as it is a moving welcome to the reader.

Not every poem succeeds this well, however. In a volume that relies upon formal variety overall, there is a sameness to some poems in how they lean on the constraints of, rather than experiment with, their form. The ability to push these constraints proves the truism that “all the fun” really is not in what you say, but “how you say it.” Mr. Engelhardt slightly misses this point, for example, in the next poem after the prologue, “Highbush,” which begins, “We’ll be very cranberry / along the bog bank smelling / like dogs—” which is fine as far as it goes, but a little too forcefully silly in the word-play, telling readers we are supposed to have a laugh rather than making us laugh, as the form ought to do.  

Several of the more narrative poems are also a bit too loose and rely too much on the book as a whole for their importance. Every poem, no matter how highly interior or personal, has to cross that divide (narrow but very deep) between the poet’s experience and the larger view and interest of the reader. For example, in “Only Connect,” the placing of a story in couplets, “She wants to feed the moose, she tells me, / this little girl birthed in a Nebraska snow storm” is not enough for the poem to stand alone: we would have to know the author for the poem to likely be of as much interest to us as it is to him. Still, these are common considerations in a first volume that otherwise provides many rich moments. For example, “Strength of the Signal,” opens deliciously: “just a few years ago I wouldn’t have known / what to call the strange dress / . . . .” It is the “strange dresses” of this book that surprise and delight.

And among those poems that stand strikingly on their own, in the lovely, “Uncontrollable Journey,” the poet deals with the deadly truth that all that is won and lost along the journey is beyond individual control. Its lines give us again the best of Mr. Engelhardt’s skill as a poet:


the one road heading north

dead-ends in Deadhorse


the end is nigh and night spills

into the next day, there should be an end . . . 


you add these

to the list of places you can’t go back to


In these moments (especially the bone-cutting rhythm and clarity of “the end is nigh and night spills”), Bone Willows defines a world of hopes and dreams, losses and recognitions, the private and the universal. The “dull storm skies” that seem to always loom are redeemed by the lovely large world, “fluttering in pastel.”


Adrian Koesters’ volumes of poetry, Many Parishes and Three Days with the Long Moon, were published by Baltimore’s BrickHouse Books, and her short nonfiction work on trauma and prayer, Healing Mysteries, was published by Paulist Press. Her novel, Union Square, is forthcoming by Apprentice House Press in 2018. She currently is the research editor for the Vice Chancellor of Research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.