More poets seem drawn each year to some version of the genre called “hybrid,” and Wintering by Megan Snyder-Camp is an exemplary book of this kind. The genre involves, usually, a blend of verse and prose, with lyric, documentary and other modes set side by side. Often these extend to a book-length work constructed around a single topic. Kazim Ali, building on Lisa Russ Spaar’s idea that hybrid is the form of choice for contemporary poets who address the political, wrote recently: “The main drive behind a documentary poetics is the notion that social or political context drawn from found sources is as valuable and interesting as the lyric or narrative voice.” From William Carlos Williams’ profuse incorporations of sources such as letters, newspaper articles, and historical writings into Patterson, to Layli Long Soldier’s inversions and repurposings of text from the US Government’s “apology” to Native Americans in Whereas, possibilities of hybrid poetry have proliferated as poets address our public lives.
Wintering springs out of Snyder-Camp several years’ investigation into one such public moment: Lewis and Clark’s arrival to the Pacific, a turning point for the Northwest where she lives. As the book unfolds, the explorers’ first encounter with this land and its people leads her to inquire after the lost “Indian Vocabularies” which they collected for Thomas Jefferson. From probing into these men’s trails, journals, and inner worlds she has made a volume that chafes the solidity, more or less, of facts, documents, the past, against a more slippery present. In line with Ali’s formulation, stories and texts of Lewis, Clark, and Jefferson find their way into several long prose poems (and one memorable erasure), short lyrics, and a scholarly essay.
Wintering is comprised of a preface, three main sections, and the essay which functions as a kind of epilogue. The first section, “the Skelleton of this monster on the Sand,” is an extended piece in six-line prose poem blocks. The prose often narrates, while fragments of found text from the explorers’ journals form verse insets, making a kind of haibun form. As she pursues their trail in documentary mode, moments of her days, glimpses of her toddler son and husband intermingle in a blurring between past and present, personal and historic.
Thus the son is a voracious explorer, a locator, who eats an apple two-handed, delivers each bite like a pin to a map. Images of fog in the present of Snyder-Camp’s search reverberate with confusion on the part of the explorers and gaps or uncertainties in the history, and she embraces the uncertainties in her text, leaving conflicting possibilities open as in her handling of historical debate: The three of us are on our way to Altoona, where the explorers either saw the ocean or didn’t.
As the section proceeds, Snyder-Camp interrogates her own project, wondering how representation might be capturing. Either to put words down on paper is to map: tuning the radio, you hear / in the darkness something coming, warning. Or writing is creation, and I am the fool holding open the door. This thread will become more troubled as the book turns toward the story of the Indian vocabularies.
The care and detail of Lewis and Clark’s observations comes forth in their quoted texts. In all their ambivalent legacy Snyder-Camp treats them complexly—inhabiting rather than condemning, filling out their pathos, their longing for home, their wonder and hunger. The tenor of their relation to nature, of respect & fear, also interpenetrates our sense of the present in her writing. Describing the landscape after a storm, for instance, we feel both its beauty and its ominous power.
The second section shifts tack with a series of titled short lyrics that work variously on the book’s themes such as motherhood, exploration, and relation to indigenous peoples, before concluding with a longer piece that returns to the six-line prose blocks. Snyder-Camp’s formal intelligence shows in the precision and variety of the poems’ shapes. As well her gifts for compression, metaphor, and music, with lines that stay in the ear, such as these that open “Pastoral:” We turned our grief out to graze / gave over the year’s tender greening.
The lyrics in this section, not anchored as firmly in the history, drift toward abstraction or elusiveness. For instance, many are written in a “we” which stays out of focus, possibly a voice of the explorers, possibly of herself and her family. Wintering generally has a high tolerance for openness, or uncertainty. This is fully embraced as the second section concludes with “in the experimental forest,” an extended prose-poem: The river and the sky were equally far and often I mistook spiraling leaves for birds …. Small brown birds I can’t name, frost-weighted leaves falling like stones …. Even as her language revels in precision and rich sound-play, it turns toward its own inadequacy, its failure to name. This will resonate with the language-loss to which the book now turns.
Thomas Jefferson’s quest to gather Native American vocabularies is taken up in the final section of poetry, The Indian Vocabularies. Snyder Camp returns to the prose-block form to narrate her discovering how the bulk of Jefferson’s Native word-lists were lost through a combination of accident, theft, and neglect. The section picks up narrative thrust as she hones in on this story, while retaining the poetic intensity that has marked the book to this point. When she unleashes her full talent, it is exciting, as in this from the close of the section: Loosed from record, the vocabularies are everywhere by now, in the river, in the attic, in the air … Vowels cracked open, licked free of names and loves.
And yet she lays her poetic powers down to finish the book with “A Reconsidered History of the Indian Vocabularies Collected on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” This carefully written and footnoted essay lays out what Snyder-Camp learned about the loss of these vocabularies. She suggests that these missing records’ fate, one of scholarly neglect and disinterest, is tied to a larger legacy of Native Americans’ dispossession and genocide. It is a compelling essay and a satisfying complement to the poetry. And I think it points to something about what hybrid poetics mean for Snyder-Camp, and possibly for poets generally in our time: a sense of the limitations of poetry. As if what she learned is too important to convey only with the tools of art.
Wintering, by Megan Snyder-Camp. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, August 2016. $16.95, paper.
Dan Alter’s poems have lately been published in Burnside Review, Field, Fourteen Hills, PANK, and ZYZZYVA, among others. He lives with wife and daughter in Berkeley and makes his living as an electrician. He holds an MFA from Saint Mary’s College. He can be found online at danalter.net