Tyler N. Moore
Moonshards and Oxgrass: A Review of Amanda Auchter’s The Wishing Tomb
The Wishing Tomb is Amanda Auchter’s second book in as many years, coming right on the heels of her beautiful and autobiographical debut, The Glass Crib. Both books are prize-winners at their respective presses, Zone 3 and Perugia Press. If that’s not enough to convince you that Auchter’s work is worth your attention, I offer these lines from “Report on Levee Breach, 1816”:
We are of the water, its moon-
shards, the desperate way it breaks through
whatever contains it: sediment,
brushwood, tall grass. And how too we are this
broken joint in the earth, its cracked jaw,
a tooth spat out and lost. (13)
We feel the sharp line break separating “moon” from “shards,” how it moves us away from any image of water’s fluidity, reminding us that water has a way of fragmenting light, earth, anything it throws its force against. And that’s what The Wishing Tomb is about: nature, psyche, and soul surging against themselves, each other, and the fragmented world they leave in their wake.
Auchter has turned from autobiography to history in her second collection, creating a portrait of New Orleans that begins in 1697 with “Letter to Comte De Pontchartrain.” In it, the speaker reintroduces us to the American landscape:
it is easy to remain still and sweat
at midnight, your body a seething
And in “Early Pastoral,” we find the familiar narrative of travelers excited to find their fortune in America. Their expectation to be met with beauty, clean slates, and riches is answered with slave auctions and a “mosquito-darkened sky” (5). These poems are a helpful reminder that the American dream has always harbored a blunt conflict between hope and reality, as well as what counts for hope and success according to one moral code versus another. Hope is the first major force at work in The Wishing Tomb, as the original force of history--hope for a better future. Auchter reminds us here, and again and again throughout, that paradise isn’t a hidden place we will eventually discover. It’s a shelter we have to build against the violence of the world.
The Wishing Tomb confronts us with that violence--sometimes slow deaths, other times swift whips. “Testimony of Baroness De Pontalba” imagines what it would feel like to be shot to death. The third section of the book inhabits New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, along with its dreadful and enduring aftermath, such as in “Saint Louis Cathedral, 2005”:
the debris of his
broken fingers swirl away from him, then point back. (59)
At other times, the violence is mere suggestion, as in “Harriet Beecher Stowe at the Cornstalk Hotel, 1850,” where there is a whip hanging close to the ears of the slaves at an auction. In the tension of that scene, all it takes is the suggestion of violence for us to see that we are capable, even inclined, to terrorize one another. To do so can take as little as a slight brush in the air. That is the second major force at work in The Wishing Tomb.
Nowhere are these forces more apparent than in “Fragments of an Aftermath,” which Auchter assembled from the media coverage surrounding the shooting of Henry Glover. For those who don’t know, that shooting was committed by police officers during the looting that took place after Katrina struck. The poem is a powerful portrait of the emotional backlash against Katrina, and an investigation of our own psyche. Auchter artfully hauls disparate voices from the media of the time that might as well be the voices in our own heads. To share only part of the poem would be too reductive, so I won’t quote it. Readers will be encouraged to ask themselves, though, how often they judge others too harshly while desperately clinging to the best definitions of themselves. Do forces of nature and circumstances thrust new character upon us, the way a storm carries foreign objects into our backyards? Or does the hurricane that rips the roof from a home bare the soul of the victim who lives there?
In its final poems, The Wishing Tomb seeks an answer to these questions. It is in these poems that we begin to see clearly why it was necessary to trek through so much of New Orleans’ history. Like so many iconic cities, perhaps more than most, New Orleans’ history can be painted as one long tragedy. It has been for many of its residents. A few poems about Louis Armstrong recount a difficult history with the city. There’s an enormous wealth of plague and bloodshed. But in the final lines of “Late Pastoral,” Auchter invites us to join a community of people who
to unstrangle the marshes, the oil-rolled shoreline, to return
to the light in the cypress, the mangrove, the oxgrass. (77)
The use of “unstrangle” here refuses to deny the violence and tragedy. It can’t be ignored or forgotten. Something must act against it. There’s a spirit of endurance, resilience, and the belief that a place and a community are worth rebuilding. It’s not hope. It’s faith. It’s knowing everything we know about the tragedies of the world and taking action to build a paradise out of it anyway. And it’s the force The Wishing Tomb finally thrusts full force upon the reader.
Amanda Auchter. The Wishing Tomb. Florence, MA: Perugia Press, 2012.