Girl in the Cave, by Tasha Cotter. Chicago, Illinois: Tree Light Books, November 2016. 20 pages. $8.00, chapbook.
In her “The Glass Essay,” Anne Carson’s speaker “… lives on a moor in the north. / She lives alone. / Spring opens like a blade there” on the moor, and Carson’s speaker explores the relationships between place, time, and all that makes us. In “The Glass Essay,” the speaker’s mother is also a blade made by the moor, and Carson leads us to consider the ways in which growing up isolated in this bleak and beautiful place “extends as far as the eye can see.”
Similarly, Tasha Cotter’s Girl in the Cave contemplates the relationship between loneliness and landscape through time, instead exploring these dualities through part of the landscape of Kentucky. Cotter writes about confinement and then being inexplicably freed in a way that illuminates our region’s postcard-worthy rolling open farmlands and then also Mammoth Cave underneath, the longest interconnected chain of limestone caverns in the world where in some places you have to crawl through on your belly in order to squeeze through it.
In “Girl in the Cave,” Cotter begins the collection with an exploration into landscape and isolation, the speaker having spent so long from the act of discourse that words become “markers breaking time, but mostly time / spent thinking there is not enough.” This fundamental fear leads her to rediscovers the creative power of narrative, when “pooling past the shale and sandstone. / Lies form and free themselves on her lips” the speaker takes ownership of all that has came and all that will come: “There’s this story about a black bear, she says, / and the hunter who chased her deep into the woods.” And then the speaker locks in her knowledge so that fiction becomes truth and together with her we follow man and bear into the cave and see the satisfying ultimate conclusion.
Cotter understands how landscape is only part of the recipe, that to get to a “now,” every person starts at a different point. In “Thanksgiving,” the speaker returns home to see the familiar landscape move over time, by the actions of a farmer: “He sold the trees for timber, / and was spotted on his tractor every afternoon. / The season swept their separation into a cool ravine. / He worked it all away: thistles blitzing the air, / cut free by the blade of a scythe as the season / tucked itself into fall …” At once, this man’s contentment and progress is also the removal of woodland. The speaker questions if “[i]t was a disappearance / of the past. Or was it a tightening on what was left?”
In “Traveler,” the speaker mulls over these questions, internalizing them while engaging in discussion with a visitor who’s returned to a place after a long time away, and then adds to them: “Still, how do you respond? / How do you chronicle the loss / of every last thing?” Cotter doesn’t answer these questions easily.
In the second half of the collection, Cotter looks for moments to punch through to the truth in the vast empty space of the everyday. In “The Service,” hollow refrains from the church congregation punctuate a funeral sermon in a way that becomes important. In “Girl As Infidel,” the speaker and a man with tattoos in both Arabic and Hebrew drive down the highway and throw rocks at street signs together in unity.
What can one do when the answers don’t reveal themselves?
In “Last Day With You,” Cotter ends the collection with a poem like a letter: “The past is a beacon calling us back and the present and future / are what you find above the water. There was only ever us …”
In Girl in the Cave, Tasha Cotter takes the reader through a honest and hauntingly lyric collection of poems that struggle with but ultimately succeed in finding hope in the often overwhelming dissonance in all the possibility and harsh socioeconomic realities of the Bluegrass State. The realities of living in the landscape of Kentucky leave us searching, seeking some sense of right in between the bountiful natural beauty and the poverty, the rolling hills and farms above to the subterranean labyrinth below. If the moors of the north hone one into a blade, Kentucky must winnow a poet down to a clear piece of glass. Cotter captures it all with a detailed and considered eye, illuminating truth “as far as the eye can see.”
Shaun Turner is the author of a chapbook of short fiction, The Lawless River (Red Bird Chapbooks) and editor at Fire Poetry. His writing can be found at Still: The Journal, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Connotation Press, and Permafrost Magazine, among others. He earned his MFA at West Virginia University.