A Woman’s Guide to Mountain Climbing by Jane Augustine
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2008)
In poetry as well as other writing forms advancing autobiographical and memoir-oriented approaches, the tendency, the temptation, of falsifying self-analysis prevails. Absorption in life experience can lead to representations of posturing, a forensics of the self too aggrandizing or abasing to be taken seriously. This kind of practiced or inadvertent confessionalism is the mortal sin of an ego too convinced of its worth, a naked or well-clothed exposure meant to titillate with its variety of recollections and re-visitations of fatuous “life journeys” embroidered with the none-too-cautious didacticism of one who has really lived. For the most part, poetry of this ilk makes the transparent eyeball of the “I” in dire need of corrective lenses and so too leaves the careful reader wishing that Eliot’s dictum to run away from the personal be a mantra and a marathon—run, do not walk, from one’s hyperbolic sense of self importance, cover the veneer of your identity politics with a plastic covering to rescue you from an imbalanced consideration of your experiential worth. In other words, put that lustrous self of yours on the shelf with the other exemplars of self and see how the entire aggregate leaves nothing but voices arranged in a symphony of banal attitudes, conventional wisdoms, and witlessness.
The ability to truly write about oneself is difficult, as hard and implacable as the mountains Jane Augustine climbs and contends with through this magnificent volume, A Woman’s Guide to Mountain Climbing. With the precision of an eye glancing over a precipice and the honest, rigorous examination that comes with not only experience but poetic prowess, Augustine has chiseled a book that is a celebration of being in all of its conflicts, contradictions, joys, and losses. This kind of poetry is fully formed and like a rock. Instead of the sedimentary rock of superficial or residual recognitions, we have the igneous depths of revelation and befuddlement. What comes forth is a conscience laying down the weight of its memory and meaning while lashing it to the self-questioning that affirms both the understanding of a moment’s experience and the dire difficulties of comprehending the range—mountain metaphor is impossible to get away from—of emotions one should feel or face in the trajectory of living and moving across the face of one’s life.
I assume that some readers and critics would deem Augustine’s brand of poetry in service to some notion of a feminist poetics. Perhaps. But the gestation of these poems collectively force one to see their energies amassed from a feminizing poetic, taking the realm of the real into a becoming, affirming the feminine while kinetically discovering what this can and cannot be. The clarity and hard earned gestures performed here leave one with the idea that the process, not the result, characterizes the truly authentic endeavor to uncover one’s relation to the self and one’s surroundings, whether the natural world or the congested, often incommunicative world of social beings and their armament of agencies, desires, evasions, and deliberations.
In the title poem, “A Women’s Guide to Mountain Climbing,” the prescriptions start straightforwardly enough:
A woman can carry
on her back
everything needed to survive—
tent, sweater, sleeping bag
canteen, flyrod, cheese
cookpot, poncho, map
tampons, bowie knife
and book of stars
without these essentials
almost can’t climb
But soon, with a careful and constant mindfulness that bespeak a sensitivity so lacking in most types of modern poetry, Augustine articulates a woman’s role and rhythm and then assays a reconciliation of materiality and myth, collapsing the ardent desire for fostering difference and unlikeness into the fusion of the human, the worldly and the unworldly. So the poem asserts:
A woman often carries more
than her own weight—
the child’s too
in the pit of her stomach
and balanced heavily upon
her watchful head: a long safari—
and think of those men who carry none
of their own weight,
who float asleep on the inner springs
of their mothers’ curls,
whose bathtubs’ crows-feet
are their secretaries’ hands and knees
—and likewise asserted is the quickening pulse of what it is, how it feels, to be a woman, a mother, a person witnessing the abjection forced by the unequal, unfair condition of women in the shadow of, no, not patriarchy—the sentiment is not writ so large—but the insensitive, casual deportment of male counterparts. Later on in the poem, the merging of the individual voice and a world made less obstructed by categorical separation of spirit and substance, myth and material, emotion and instinct comes to light:
I walk into the moon’s country.
Her fullness rises,
a cooled and softened sun.
Both eyes of the sky
have cleared, strip
down to essential body,
lose the flesh of thought.
My white bones float
out to meet that naked source
by which I see both dark and light,
wildflower both beautiful
therefore no consolation
Notice how this passage refuses a period, as if to indicate that the lines run to no assertion, only a concentrated attunement to the magic and menace of experience imaginatively and personally processed. The “flesh of thought”—a phrasing so penetrating in its syncretic oversight of the collision of the material and abstract leads to the clear-headed conception of the available currents of perception allowed to the poet on a “safari” in the world—validation and a stark and troubled resignation. These lines run with the integrity of a mountain river and refuse the easy tributary into the human-made reservoir of easy closure.
These personal poems personalize themselves without exhibitionism, with a steady, surmounting projection of a self steeled in skeptical inquiry and roving jouissance with all that is on—and perhaps off, at least empirically—offer. Images and indications of familial and romantic loss and recuperation, the anxiety of being ensconsed and constrained by the limits of society and self-knowledge, the enumeration of the dependencies on family, social or poetic traditions, and cultivated sensibility of one’s notions of how to navigate the mountainous terrain of life’s fertile and sometimes frustratingly fallow or faltering portions: these qualities are, at times, countered, and held accountable, by the willful exemptions of a poet who refuses the tyranny of the real, the received, and the fateful. Few poets can bequeath a book that operates, on its own terms, as a guide, a user’s manual, that so poignantly instructs and points to paths of inquiry too often obscured by the brambles and brush of our noisy world, our lackluster selves. Jane Augustine is that kind of masterful poet that trailblazes and yet carries a torch to show the necessary trails to poets, readers, all of us in the dark and wishing for some illuminating filaments of grace to banish the encroaching darkness.
Jon Curley is a poet living in Newark, New Jersey.