a literary review
For some readers, the West with the cowboys and Indians, the settlers and the manifest destiny, is no longer interesting. Westerns have come and gone. However, the cover to Shana Youngdahl’s History, Advice, and Other Half-Truths could capture anyone’s attention with its old sepia-like feel and the cold, distant stare of the cover’s couple. But the book is so much more than the simplicity of the cover. In these pages are universal truths, an ancient wisdom with an authentic voice that challenges the reader to step back to a forgotten era in our history and ultimately to reevaluate our own struggles and desires.
Youngdahl has a real ear for line breaks as in “Clara Wellington Places an Ad in the Western Papers”: To escape her / desperate destiny: the dull / widening of her hips. The space literally widens after “dull” as we read it. Furthermore, the poem intrigues as it carries the reader in a seemingly casual tone while it reveals a list of valued items. Through the use of both line breaks and the echo of sound, the poem demonstrates Youngdahl’s poetic ear. For example, by examining the list of personal items used from an actual ad, Yougdahl reveals so much about Clara Wellington. Clara has placed an ad in order to move out West and in the ad, she lists her personal treasured items: farm with two calico dresses, a fry pan, coffee pot / prize-winning pies. Through the wonderful “a” and “p” sounds, these valued items leap off the page, and they tell so much about Clara as well.
Youngdahl makes the poems not only feel real and true but she gives the readers fresh metaphors like: even small words / could unravel the linens of long / sealed secrets. And another example: one spring we sliced / worms in two with our fingernails, / they danced into the ground / to die. We had faith in lies. Our knees / armor against an alphabet / of answers. Without a doubt, these are poems to be read aloud as they carry the reader along on a ride of rhyme and sound as in the above example of “armor”, “against”, “alphabet” and “answers”. Another example can be seen in the beautifully haunting poem “Whisper On The Oregon Trail”. One can almost forget the grim subject matter when it begins: Wagon wheel and endless prairie set / my breastbone to stone. The sound of the words so easily rolls the reader along. But then the next line brings in the bleak reality with a picturesque horror accomplished through the haunting image: The baby near dead, / fevered, crackling like earth. I sling / him to me with rough cotton, promise him / wet-dirt. How can someone not hold their breath in the open space between promise him and the next stanza which begins with wet-dirt?
Many of Youngdahl’s poems start off slow, lulling the reader in like a slow-moving wagon ride, while the poem builds in intensity and then jolts to a powerfully emotional end. For example, the opening poem “Abigail Sails to the New World and Heads for the Hills” which begins with an almost fact-like line: Sharing language with the British is mostly / an accident of history. But then the poem ends on a wham-bam pow: The land / I came to is wooden, crossed over, double-kissed, plagued / by a pounding deep in the clay soil
The first section, called “History”, is by far the strongest of the three sections. These poems, perhaps dark, explore the desperation some women faced as in the series of prison poems in the first section. These prison poems reveal the harsh and desperate experiences some women endured. Not only are the voices captivating in this section but the images resonate. For example, in “Lillie Todd, Nurse: Wyoming Inmate #510 Charge: Grand Larceny”, Youngdhal ends with: I found men armed with the constant push / of wind. I had no choice, but to fill the needle, / clear my sky with clouds. Any diamond / is worth this.
The middle section, “Advice,” is not only the shortest with only five poems but also the weakest. The list format begins to feel dry and seems to be missing the wonderful imagery and the strong endings in the twenty poems that make up the first section.
In the last nineteen poems, in a section wonderfully titled “And Other Half-Truths,” Youngdahl returns to her strengths. This can be seen in the poem “In August” where these beautiful young girls don’t seem to notice a leaf, / given to gold. Or in another compact poem called “I Never Touched You” which captivates with this opening: Your voice is magpies hatching.
However, the last seven poems in this section do not feel quite as fresh and vibrant as “History”, with the exception of “Carl Jung is Building Sandcastles”. For example, in “Love Poem for the Season of our First Child’s Birth”, we get the expected metaphor of “grows” and “seasons” in a birth poem which ends: I’ll love you / through the loss of everything. These more personal narrative poems come off as less vivid and confessional as the earlier character poems.
Still, as a whole, History, Advice, and Other Half-Truths definitely hits. The theme of chasing dreams, the echo of manifest destiny, and the lack of choices for so many of these people weave together into a powerful book.