When we were still a place

‘A Cartography of Home’ by Hayden Saunier

5 minute read
This nest is an apt emblem for Saunier’s poetry. (Image courtesy of Terrapin Books.)
This nest is an apt emblem for Saunier’s poetry. (Image courtesy of Terrapin Books.)

The adage tells us not to judge books by their covers. But we do—literally and metaphorically—and in the case of Hayden Saunier’s luminous, probing new collection of poetry, A Cartography of Home, the cover offers a vivid glimpse of what’s inside.

It features a bird’s nest, a snaggle of aqua and orange thread, natural fibers, a creased bit of paper the shade of a robin’s egg, and Mobius strips that appear to have been scissored from a map. Loose bits of yarn trail from the perimeter.

The nest is at once fragile, porous, and resilient, a gorgeous, untidy weave of the organic and the human-made. And it is unoccupied. Perhaps the birds have fled. Maybe they have yet to cache their eggs. An empty nest—signifying loss, or possibility, or both.

Catastrophe and grace

It’s an apt emblem for poems that grab images from the natural world surrounding the Pennsylvania farm where Saunier lives—a fox, a creek, a turkey vulture, a row of dying pole beans—and weave them together with mini-marts, highway motels, and a desperate phone call to customer support.

No matter the topic, Saunier’s poems land in the tender wound between gratitude for all the homes we have and make—beginning with our mothers’ bodies—and awareness of the ways we can bring those homes to ruin with short-sightedness and greed.

Saunier resists any tidy conclusions: in the world she limns, nature is not entirely beneficent—a fox kills backyard chickens; trees compete for the light—and humans are not all bad. Any moment could teeter toward catastrophe, or grace.

The fox and the clerk

The poem “I’m Also the Fox,” begins with the speaker slicing bitter strawberries, eaten out of season “because we are divided/from our food in the way we are divided from/each other and divided from ourselves” then journeys through the ethical bargains made by those with privilege before landing on a moment when the speaker and the predatory fox eye one another: two animals capable of wreaking damage with their hungers.

In other pieces, Saunier refuses the temptation to cast herself—or her proxies, the poem’s speakers—as the most virtuous voices in the chorus. In the wry and stinging “Confirmation Bias at the Minimarket,” the narrator’s friend sizes up the clerk’s “dead eyes” and “lethal stare” and concludes (in a whisper, of course) that she’s probably eaten too many factory-farmed chicken nuggets.

The speaker, who’s done that kind of soul-killing work herself, knows better than to stereotype; what’s more, she realizes her friend is “behaving/like a walking example of organic/food privilege/from a small college town.”

The poem ends with a deft U-turn of perspective: the narrator thanks the clerk, then apologizes, saying “we’re idiots, forgive us—/no, don’t—we are exactly/who and what you thought when we walked in./That’s when she smiles.”

Good citizens

In “Advice Column: House Centipedes,” shaped on the page in two long columns labeled “Q” and “A,” the advice-seeker confides her guilt for smushing the centipedes—“half-fish, half-beast/with lasso feelers/eyelash legs”—that appear each morning in her bathroom sink, “as though accusing me/of small mean deeds/done years ago.”

The unsentimental reply? Get over yourself. “You’re not as awful as you think. Nor are they,” the advice columnist zings back, closing her missive with a reminder that could serve us all: “Next time: try/looking through/a compound eye.”

Saunier’s poems often end that way, with a hairpin swivel that drives the poem someplace deeper, darker (and occasionally, funnier) than where it began. In “Insomnia in a Highway Motel,” the sleepless narrator listens to trucks rumbling past, hoping they carry nourishment—“burlap sacks/of rice and barley, tangerines,/blankets, vials of insulin” but knowing their cargo is more likely to be “cellphones, flat screens, razor/wire, beer and what they call/long guns.”

She could lie awake, wracked with thoughts of the terrible things humans create and cart around the world. Instead, she opts—sadly, truthfully—for numbness: “So I take a pill, like a good citizen.”

A naked view of humankind

I’m willing to wager that Saunier, founder of the improvisational poetry performance group No River Twice, reads every line aloud during the process of revision; her poems thrum with sound, her use of internal rhyme makes subtle echoes and her line-breaks often serve to double her words’ meaning, or to swiftly tug a moment somewhere unpredictable.

There’s love in this book, and grief; the title poem, “A Cartography of Home,” is a stunning exploration of how those feelings intertwine. The speaker recalls her mother: “the where/from which I rose,” then fast-forwards through the years to a moment before her mother died, when

My mother stroked my hair
the way her mother had stroked hers,
and hers before hers, on and on, and we
remained like that—not long—but long enough

to make an atlas of us, perfect bound,
while she was still a place and so was I.

Why read poems in the midst of a pandemic? I go to poetry for a naked view of humankind: our cruelties, our quirks and kindness, our capacity for change. That’s here, in all the homes Saunier inhabits. The first piece invites the reader to join her at a table made of salvaged wood, “spalted through with hard luck, grease/disease, fat streaks of amber jam/…Sit down and eat.” Say yes. You’ll be well fed.

Image description: The cover of the book A Cartography of Home, by Hayden Saunier. The title and author’s name are in black text, with an empty bird’s nest on a pale background. Strips of colored paper in blue, white, and yellow are woven among the gray natural materials.

What, When, Where

A Cartography of Home. By Hayden Saunier. West Caldwell: Terrapin Books, February 15, 2021. 98 pages, paperback; $16. Get it from Terrapin Books.

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