Review: “Words Facing East”
Words Facing East, Kimberly L. Becker
WordTech Editions, 2011, $18
Kimberly L. Becker is of Cherokee descent. Her poetry reflects that fact in so many ways, unabashedly — from the poem that opens Words Facing East, “Circling the Mound” about Kituwah, a sacred site to the Cherokee, to the poem that ends the collection, “One Drop,” which brings the reader full circle back to Kituwah, the pride and sadness felt when looking at its past and the author’s present. Each poem contains a carefully considered view of the world, which forces the reader to stop and look at things that may have otherwise slipped past one’s notice. One such example is the poem “Destroying the Spider’s Web,” in which the author considers the web that a mother spider has made to live in while waiting for her eggs to hatch. Becker ponders: “I debate the thing/to do. Contemplate another trip to/the ER with swollen arm and growing/fever; decide the spiders have to go.” A mixture of reflection, observation, memory, and history, the piece immediately establishes Becker’s collection as thoughtful, bittersweet and gorgeous.
Its first section, entitled where are your women?, includes gems like “Ghost Dance Dress,” a poem about an American Indian dress displayed at the National Museum of the American Indian, and the heartfelt, personally transparent poem “Shaking the Snow.” “Ghost Dance Dress” contains the graceful lines “Even a poem must keep its distance/as we do, perforce, from the dress/behind the glass./Some things you don’t defame by cataloging” and allows Becker to ponder “peaceful resistance/in the form of defiant dance.” “Shaking the Snow” is noted to be written for Susan, and in it, Becker compares their friendship to her act of shaking tree branches to remove heavy snow and prevent the branches from breaking. She says, “What if someone took our/burden from us lightly?/Shook us just enough/that we let fall/whatever weighed/our spirit/down?/You did that once, for me,” inviting us to peer into the speaker’s heart and feel the emotion she feels — both for Susan and in remembrance of the sorrow that weighed her down. “Riven,” a heartbreaking poem about three girls who tried to escape from a government boarding school, conveys a gnawing desperation, as “The pull for home is so strong,/stronger than death,/that it was worth the risk/the river soothed their way home,” repeating this last line at the end of three stanzas. We can feel Becker’s sadness at the history of the Cherokee people, and empathize with the girls whose only way “home” is drowning.
The second section, entitled so that some might stay, embodies the same thoughtful style with “This morning found,” “Finders, Keepers,” and “Pray with what is left.” “This morning found” chronicles a situation that those who take nature-walks often face, when the speaker finds the remnants of a bird under a tree. In her mind, instead of a carcass to be avoided, she sees “no body or bones; just feathers/I carefully collect in honor/of one recently flown/I clutch my find all the way home/All that remains of flight/I hold: air quivers them to life.” She remarks on the commercialism of tourist trade in “Finders, Keepers,” as she asks for arrowheads and is charged $5 for one. The speaker “.planned to give it to my son, / but think the better of it; decide / next time I’m home I’ll push / the arrowhead back into / the ground.” In “Pray with what is left,” the notion of being overwhelmed is described, as “At night the river rises / until you are subsumed, / submerged,” and the speaker offers her advice for “When you try to tell / what you have seen / all that’s left to you / is tear and gesture / You pray with what is left / and find it is enough”.
The collection’s third section, listening and speaking, contains the poem “What the Tourists Don’t Know.” This poem references the title of the collection in its first and last stanzas, with “He may be drunk / but he still speaks / of facing East/when the sun rises” and “He may be drunk, / may hold my hands too long, / but when he speaks / his words face East.” The second poem also talks of words — its title being “River of Words”, subtitled “written on the Qualla Boundary.” As one who loves and appreciates words, the speaker “went to the water of language to be cleansed of conquering consonants / I went to be baptized into my true self / I keep coming to water, over and over / Even now, as you speak, some of your spittle lands on my hand, / joining water to water, all of us part.” Another poem in this section, “The Gift of Loss,” shows Becker’s unorthodox style of pondering things, as she wonders “What happens to the risks we never take? / Do they sink out of sight/only to resurrect later as regret?”; later in the same poem, she asks if a hawk even notices when it loses feathers, not minding “that its loss gifts someone below.”
One of the most relatable poems in this section, however, is “Burning the Letter” and, as its title would suggest, speaks of burning a letter. Though the reader does not know what kind of letter is being discussed until the third stanza, this serves in a way to make the piece more relatable. Becker reflects that she “thought the words would be more flame-resistant” and “One person’s betrayal isn’t so much. / Treaties signed and broken by the Great Father / mean far more”.
The volume’s final section, what is far gone, seems to urge the reader to pay attention to the world and the people within it. The poem “Come Back to the World” implores the reader that “What’s important it to notice / rain drops on leaves / They are not tears they just are” and that “These are things that matter, / that dwarf in your small heart/filled with stones of hurt,” to “Come back to the world Let it be/Let it heal what you feel is far gone/The earth knows what you know and more.” This section also contains the poem “For the Native Dead,” just before the end of the section and the last of the collection, save for the poem “One Drop,” which eases the reader back into a feeling of mourning for the ancestral home of the Cherokee. Becker lingers on the landscape, saying “Elemental stillness of the stones / Calm of water, dammed to winter level/I detour through a corridor of cedars / Then come upon an ancient burial mound / A jogging path’s paved over it / But I choose to walk around/Something should remain sacred / Some solemn ground”.
Becker’s collection is imaginative and thoughtful, offering the reader a new appreciation for the intricacies of life and illuminating them through delicate word-choice. As Becker writes in “Letting Down the Stories,” “Once freed, stories stand / in the corners of the room, / waiting to be bidden” and Words Facing East does exactly that. It is pensive, contemplative, and well worth reading.