Lone Star Book Reviews
of Texas books appear weekly
Barbara Brannon, producer of Lone Star Literary Life, studied poetry with James Dickey at the University of South Carolina, where she earned the MA and PhD. Her poems have appeared in the Asheville Poetry Review, Broad River Review, Cenacle, Kakalak, Light, Measure, the South Carolina Review, and Yemassee, among other outlets, including the anthology Bearing the Mask: Southwest Persona Poems (Dos Gatos Press, 2016). Working for the state of Texas’s heritage tourism program, she is a frequent contributor of travel and feature articles and is coauthor, with Kay Ellington, of the Paragraph Ranch series of Texas novels.
Paperback, 94 pages, 978-0-944048719, $15.00
Virtual Artists Collective (Purple Flag Press)
Reviewed by Barbara Brannon
I spend a lot of time in and around Amarillo, Texas — was there just last Friday, in fact — and, frankly, all that travel is why it’s taken me so long to craft this review of an excellent collection of poems that I’ve had on my desk since, well, January’s Panhandle ice storm.
I know this city, and I know this country. I nod my head in precise recognition when Yellow City poet Chera Hammons in The Traveler's Guide to Bomb City describes the pronghorns that “shyly dip their muzzles into the grass / in the ochre fields beside the highway” (Changing Time Zones”); “a gelding whickering from behind a gate / and an afternoon-crowing rooster far off” in a place where “the trees all lean from the southwest” (“Town & Country Store”). It’s a landscape where houses are “scattered like worn brown stones as far as the caprock” (“Unpaved Road”) and pumpjacks stand “tedious in their dumb horsey faces” (“Mineral Rights”).
I marveled at the account of a red fox traversing a downtown parking lot in search of wild food (“Urban Red”) — I’ve seen that scene, pulling over to photograph one of the creatures in an alley one night near Polk and Tenth.
But Amarillo has a terrifying secret. Or a secret to some, though “Once you know, you notice” (“bomb city”). Just one county to the east is located the 16,000-acre Pantex Plant, America’s primary nuclear weapons stockpile. The plant produced conventional bombs during World War II, but since that time has operated under various contractors to assemble, and dismantle, nuclear warheads in its high-security bunkers. One could readily deduce, as I did years ago in reading Pat Frank’s sci-fi novel Alas, Babylon, that certain destinations in the United States would beyond doubt pose prime targets for enemies in a nuclear apocalypse. Amarillo knows the real-world target lies in their back yard.
Hammons crafts deceptively straightforward rubrics for her book’s four chapters: “Climate,” “Wildlife,” “Domesticated Species,” and “Culture and Demographics.” It is in the last of these that we find a faux chamber-of-commerce factoid neatly slipped in: “Major industries include meat packing, oil drilling, and assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons.”
Thus I begin at the end of these four sections, and it’s appropriate.
“Let’s be bothered by endings for the last time,” the last poem concludes, a carpe diem sentiment toward which earlier poems build. Failed romances (and new ones) thread through a satisfyingly cohesive narrative in which canned tomatoes serve as a twenty-first-century memento mori. If “Teotwawki” in Hammons’s opening title for the fourth section sounds to you like a Kiowa name, don’t look for it on the map; consult, instead, preparations for The End Of The World As We Know It.
Yet this is no Pat Frank nuclear dystopia. In Hammons’s flowing, free-verse lyrics, the natural world delights us in its detail, then turns on a moment of wonder. As the speaker mildly contemplates the habits of “moths who can’t / remember how to leave / looking for gaps in the sill,” the next stanza has her (yes, her; I can only see the author as narrator here) observing in a leap of cognition, “If I could trap angels this way, I would” (“Navigation”). Butterflies open their wings instinctually; spiders wait, their “tiny suspended mouths with hesitant octaves” a perfect echo of their eight-legged bodies (“Arachnology”); birds and mammals populate “The Hare,” a poem that melds, for me, James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals” with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover” and “Pied Beauty,” or any Mary Oliver poem. You’ll see what I mean, in its first lines:
A fawn buck crouches
in the shade of a post,
his nose a pink heartbeat.
Since the hour of birth
he has not found a safe womb,
but ruminates earth
while the dandelions seed,
their green offspring learning flight
and sticking to fur.
The wheat finds mirrors
in gold eyes of peregrines.
Rabbits breach like fish.
The soft does scatter
in broken strings of rosary,
that have been touched once.
Lest these lyrics lull us too far into peaceful contemplation, Hammons reminds us that Bomb City is only seventeen miles away. “This is the ugly part of Texas,” claims our tour guide in “Amarillo” in a sort of backhanded Baedeker. “We stayed because it all started out so well. / Then we learned how to wring beauty / from anything we could.”
The domesticated and wild animals of this landscape clash and claw and ultimately live in symbiosis, as do its humans. People drink. They drive. They betray. They tolerate the drinking of others.
A married couple, a woman with friends (enough to move a used piano, at least), and extended family members, inhabit the region, and they all keep a sharp eye on the weather. They build a fence; they must put a horse down. It is this interaction of resident with environment, predator with prey, wind with water, beneath the ever-present specter of annihilation, that has wrung beauty from an unlikely inspiration. Many of these poems saw first publication in the nation’s finest journals, and we look for more from Chera Hammons — if the bomb doesn’t get us first. If we fret that everywhere in the natural world hides human-made disaster in plain sight, we take comfort that in every suburban ceiling corner lurks a tiny spider, and on any given city street on any given day, a wild red fox might cross our path.
* * * * *
Chera Hammons is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College. Her work has most recently appeared in such publications as Beloit Poetry Journal, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Re- view, Rattle, Sugar House Review, Tar River Poetry, Tupelo Quarterly, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and The Writer’s Almanac.
Her books include Amaranthine Hour (recipient of the Jacar Press Chapbook Award, 2012) and Recycled Explosions (Ink Brush Press, 2016). She resides in Amarillo with her husband, three horses, two dogs, three cats, a donkey, and a rabbit.