Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Geri Doran: Sanderlings

For a book titled Sanderlings, few birds flutter through Geri Doran’s second collection of poems. More centrally, this book is focused on scavenging, as those small wading birds are wont to do, and Doran’s interest in stringing fragment-like sections together, shrapnel from a larger idea, places the reader in that role of scavenger. These poems are far from being "easy" or "accessible," as Doran asks her readers to meet her halfway and work through these poems piecemeal. And if one is willing to put in the effort, these poems—with their restraint and subtle grace—can mesmerize.

Doran’s collection is bookended with the poems "The Rounded Eyes of God" and "Common Prayer," and she executes such framing and balance throughout her collection on both a grand and minute level. The book is divided into four main sections, each one tightly conceived with its own reoccurring image set or conceit. She is an archeologist of a poet, excavating inspiration from such sources as the Gnostic gospels and the mythic city of Atlantis. Although there’s less cohesion across sections than what we’ve grown to expect (for better or worse, but probably worse) from books of contemporary poetry, this idea of conjoining several chapbook-length projects under one header works for me. Rather than project, what unifies this collection as a whole is Doran’s tone and register, the insistent rhetorical turn and the nearly neo-Biblical grandeur of her careful phrasing which imbues these poems with their delicate yet savage beauty.

My favorite poem in this collection, "The Atlantis of Morning," is a fine example of Doran’s ability to create tension and surprise between lines and sections. The poem, which meditates on the notion of bygone desire, unifies itself in its pairings and repetitive echoes. "Dear Wanderer," the poem begins. "The beachcombers are in want of an elegy," which in the next section transforms into "the beach is an elegy for want." This repetition and word-morphing is also seen line-to-line:

Mainly, there is the storm.
The storm, and ever after the mystery

of what lies underwater, the mystery
the beachcombers try to solve

for the solace of trying.

This insistence on naming and renaming is also seen in the title poem: "Calling to fish dying in buckets, saying hush / redtail surfperch, hush starry flounder. / So that you know I know their names. / Like the Asian men with their fishpoles know / the names" ("Sanderlings").

More than most books I’ve read recently, these poems feel careful. They are meditative without being tedious; they are quiet without sacrificing their assertiveness. And while contemplative, these poems are bold. Just when I thought Doran had teetered too deep into introspection, she’d knock me over with a line such as this: "The boulder in its jaw / is a counterweight …  The words in my mouth are rocks / I mumble through" ("Earth Moving"). In "The Atlantis of Morning," the speaker asks, "Have you ever grown tired of metaphor, / its making and remaking." My response to this question, in regards to Sanderlings, is no.

Geri Doran
Tupelo Press, 2011