Book Review


Book Cover


Horse and Rider
by Melissa Range
Texas Tech UP, $21.95 66 pp. 2010.
ISBN-10: 9780896727021 ISBN-13: 978-0896727021
Review by William Wright

This first assertion will be deemed as reductive and myopic, but critics must sometimes risk those labels, particularly when one encounters a book such as Melissa Range’s Horse and Rider. “Good” poetry, in this reviewer’s estimation, must excel in several ways. If a poem is to inhabit a reader’s mind residually, it must achieve a difficult balance of the following: Sound + Sense + Intellect + Heart. It occurs to me that these familiar qualifiers smack of the cliché whittling-down-to-essentials so prevalent in graduate workshops; alas, most published poems do not manage to reflect close consideration of these ideals. Thus, a large swath of contemporary poetry, delighting in the postmodern sensibilities that still inform it, manages, often but not always, to achieve one or two of the aforementioned qualities: Sonically, a poem encountered in any number of top-tier journals might be interesting but lack a perceivable narrative or coherent lyricism. Alternatively, many poems might attempt to massage the intellect while willfully dismissing image and sound. And there are poems that might center on a preoccupation of image—clusters of sensory information without a story to justify them. Finally, one might encounter the still extant strains of American poetry that rely on emotional provocation but lack texture and surprise in diction or image. Very few poets manage to marry all of these together into a work that truly delights and challenges.

            Melissa Range’s book, winner of the 2010 Walt McDonald First Book Award, achieves all of these qualities, but this bald assessment is severe understatement. The poems are forceful, pyrotechnic, and populated with images with such lasting power that they reside in the mind for days after reading. Horse and Rider is a mythic collation of both formal and free verse works that celebrate the natural world while forging images of religious profundity with violent grace and diamond clarity. These are poems to read aloud and savor, tart and sweet both, like a cold green apple bitten into. The first three stanzas of “Mercy Seat” reflect the persistent tone of the book:

                        What a cache of carcasses, this battered slab—
                        this strand, a grotto for flotsam or jetsam
                        ebbed and jettisoned by the sea. Here,
                        even the most lackadaisical of looters

                        can exhume a grainy death graying with salt
                        and a creed the neap tides know by rote: custom
                        is lunar, slips by like an unstrung bead
                        of sand, more grit than golden, no matter the angle

                        of light. What the shore lacks in luster
                         it amends in shrine—a reliquary for the elusive
                        nautilus and the more stock amulets alike,
                        oyster and cockleshell, the ghost-crab’s claw.

Range’s style is consistent, lush, and dedicated to a sonic force akin to Gerard Manley Hopkins and an unabashed ornateness resembling the flourishes of the contemporary poet Eric Pankey. Range’s poems create coherent, interesting stories undergirded by lyricism that buffets one through these landscapes and meditations like a powerful wind at the back. They are truly original and truly inspired and the result is a poetry that matters, a poetry that has not been manufactured but lovingly crafted through hard work and genuine giftedness.

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